David A. Davis
January 3, 2021
I learned something about “homage” just recently. It came from a surprising source. I didn’t learn it by reading and studying Matthew 2:1-12 yet again this week. It didn’t come in a particular study of the Greek word in Matthew. Most of us have little to no experience with “homage”; neither the word nor the practice. But my surprising source is sort of all about “homage.” At the very end of the final episode of this season’s Netflix series “The Crown”, Prince Phillip, husband of the queen, is making a rather weak effort to comfort and encourage Princess Diana who is distraught about her marriage to Prince Charles and the realization that she will always be considered nothing but an outsider in the royal family. After acknowledging that he too has been nothing but an outsider in his marriage to the queen, he then says this: “Everyone in this system is a lost, lonely, irrelevant outsider, apart from the one person, the only person, that matters. She is the oxygen we all breathe. The essence of all our duty. Your problem, if I may say is you seem to be confused about who that person is.” And the screen shows the Queen standing alone at the altar of the church on Christmas Day.
Now I didn’t mention that what I learned about “homage” may not have come in the most uplifting of quotes. But it pretty much seems like a definition of “homage” nonetheless. “The one person, the only person that matters. She is the oxygen we all breath. The essence of all our duty.” “Homage” in context. “Homage” in a culture context. Interestingly, the presence of the word “homage” in the Matthew translation is not an archival holdover from the King James version. No, in the King James, the word is “worshipped”. “When they were come into the house, they saw the young child with his mother, and fell down and worshipped him”. Apparently, when it comes to the King’s English, one pays homage to only one monarch.
Homage and the context of monarchy. Which brings us back to King Herod. The wise men, the magi, the star-followers, those well-schooled fellows from the East came to Jerusalem. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to pay him homage?” When King Herod heard about the stately pilgrims who were looking for a child who has been born king, the bible says he was “frightened.” That’s the bible being polite. Kings don’t get scared, they get ticked. He was angry that there would be any talk or rumor spreading, or God forbid, a movement, that would seem to imply a king coming from anywhere other than his family, his own offspring, his own flesh and blood. “Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem with him” Translation: Herod was flying off the handle in an angry tirade of word and action and all Jerusalem was frightened not with him, but by him. You know how that works, when the king is bothered, everyone is expected to be bothered, when the king is angry, everyone should look angry, when the king is happy, then everyone’s happy. That’s how it is supposed to work in cultures that define “homage”.
In the New Revised Standard version, the word “homage” appears only hear in Matthew 2 and then once near the end of Mark’s gospel. The soldiers “clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail king of the Jews!’. They struck his head with a read, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him.” In cultures that define “homage”, it can be twisted. It can come with a cruel, violent sarcasm.
What I have learned about “homage” recently tells me that here in the final scene of the Nativity of Jesus, it is an extremely loaded term. For the Magi, and the Child Jesus and “homage” to be in the same sentence ought to strike anyone who remembers that Herod is somewhere in the picture. “Homage” show respect and reverence and honor. To formally and publicly declare oneself in service to another. To bow before the one who is the essence of your duty. “Homage” may be something of a foreign word to us, but it was not to those astrologers from the East. Given the culture they embodied, that context of kingship and vassals and lords and servanthood and power, they would have understood it. They lived it. They knew it. The Magi, the Wise Ones, the star followers, they weren’t coming to simply kneel down and adore the child born a king. Those Wise Men from the East, they weren’t kings. The child was the king. Their visit was more than gift giving, it was even more than praise and worship and adoration. It was a daring, subversive, dangerous act in a culture that defined “homage.” And they would have been wise enough to know it. Before the myrrh, before the frankincense, before the gold, they knelt and paid homage. In a culture that defined “homage” they fell on their knees before the wrong king.
“Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod.” A couple of bible translations toss in “warned by God” or “it was made clear to them by God in a dream.” Translators affirming what most readers have always assumed. The warning in a dream was a divinely inspired, Holy Spirit, kind of nudge. But what if with a good night’s sleep and a dream, the Magi just woke the next day and came to their senses. Because they were wise enough to know what happens when you pay homage to the wrong king. They were wise enough to know how King Herod would react to the announced presence of another king. They were wise enough to know how the Herod’s of the world act when they don’t get all the “homage”. According to Matthew, “Herod was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” Yes, in cultures that define “homage”, it can be twisted. It can come with cruel violence. When those in power demand “homage” and rage in anger and launch tirades, cruelty and violence can abound. Herod was infuriated not just because the Magi tricked him. He was infuriated because they paid “homage” to the wrong king.
“They left by another road.” Another road. The astrologers from the East are never heard from again in the gospels. Their lives post-“homage” left to be captured only by the image, the symbol, the sign of “another road’. After the Christ Child drew them in, after the light of God’s grace broke through the darkness of the night trumpeting the news of the Word Made Flesh to far corners of the earth, after the Holy Spirit’s guiding and pushing, a leading that pierced through the world’s canopy of wisdom and culture and power with the clarity of a morning star, after the Christ Child bid them to come, after boldly defying the epitome of worldly power, might, violence, and evil, after the rejoicing and the bowing and the submitting, after the respect and the reverence and honor, after they declared themselves in service to the Savior, to the Messiah, to God with us, to the Child Jesus, the relationship of servant and Lord thus being established, after giving themselves to that Christ Child who so brought them to their knees, who so drew them in, it was another road.
Another road where power comes in servanthood, where strength is defined by love, where forgiveness reigns, where the poor and the outcast and the stranger go to the front of line, sit at the head table, are cared for, thought about, identified as first, not last, greatest, not least. Another road. Where war is no more, justice and righteousness pour forth, and peace mends the world. Another road. Where wisdom is defined by a cross, victory comes through selflessness, and life rises from the undying love of the dying Savior born king. Another road. A kingdom that forever redefines “homage”.
In his book “Mere Christianity”, C.S. Lewis writes that being drawn into Christ was the only thing we were made for. That really is the story of the Magi, isn’t it. Them being drawn into Christ there under the star, at the manger, paying “homage”. Maybe that’s the gospel definition of “homage”: being drawn into Christ. For Lewis, that is Christ’s greatest gift. That he draws into himself, that when he offers himself back to God, Christ’s gives to God as well.
Lewis goes on in “Mere Christianity” to suggest that handing your whole self over to Christ, to allow yourself to be drawn in, or to pay homage as it were, that is the almost impossible thing to do. “The challenge comes at the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. But the first job consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to the other voice, taking the point of view, letting the other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.” That’s C.S Lewis on starting each day with homage.
Starting each day on another road.
Come to the Table on this first Sunday of the New Year. Everyone hopes for, prays for, longs for a new year, a different year, a better year in 2021. But here at this Table, you and I, taste and see, not the hopes and dreams of coming year, but the hope and promise of another road.