What if the three magi had never shown up? After all, it is because the magi tipped Herod off that Jesus would be born, all the infants on Bethlehem were put to death. So might it not have been better if the the wise men had never picked up that week's horoscope?
As a caveat, there is one thing to bear in mind: there is no record outside Matthew of the massacre taking place under Herod. It might not have happened. The rest of the story, though, fits in surprisingly well with the historical picture we have of Herod and the religions to the east of ancient Israel. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing later in the first century, tells us that Herod really did have superstitious fears about a usurper being born, and contemporary Jewish accounts talk about his cruelty and cunning. As for the Magi, we have documentary evidence that Babylonian astrologers were expecting a universal king and deliverer to be born in the West, which of course is the direction they travelled in to get to Jesus (they saw the star from the East, not in the East). So, be wary of the modern 'commonsense' tendency to write off the early life of Jesus as sheer fancy. But back to the question of why the Magi needed to come along at all, at such a cost in human life.
We might as well ask, what was the point in Jesus being born? Because, to be sure, plenty of people have died as a result. Not just people like the first martyr, the deacon St Stephen, whose feast is on Boxing Day, but people who never wanted the martyr's crown. They are dying still under the onslaught of the Islamic State, and God knows what has happened to those Christian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. They died under Communism, in the interest of building an atheist utopia: within five years of the 1917 Revolution, Lenin had killed over 100,000 believers and in 1922 issued an edict to exterminate all the clergy. By 1940, 97% of Russian churches were closed or demolished, some 80,000 priests, monks and nuns executed. In total, twentieth-century Communist nations killed 120 million of their own citizens, all in the interest of building a world of 'scientific materialism' where God would have no place.
120 million. A useful stat to bear in mind when the inevitable dinner party atheist leans over to tell you how much bloodshed religion has caused. 50 million in Russia, 70 million in China.
“But,” our speculative atheist might quite reasonably counter, “if Jesus hadn't been born all those innocents would not have died.”
“Well, yes,” we might say, “just as if there was no science, there'd be no nuclear bomb, and there'd also be no penicillin.”
“But surely,” the atheist might then come back, “you can't justify the death of children as some sort of collateral damage. You can't just say that those babies were a necessary sacrifice for the Epiphany of Jesus Christ to take place, ad majorem Dei gloriam.”
No. We can't say that. But what we can say is this. The depravity of human nature is nothing new. It didn't start with Jesus. Take Moses: when Pharoah heard that the liberator of the Jews would be born, he put the children to death, and Jesus, this new Moses for all peoples, provokes the same response. He is a threat to those empowered by brutality, bloodshed, slavery, and they do everything they can to eliminate the threat. He was born to herald a Kingdom where swords would be turned to ploughshares, but it better serves the powers of greed and envy for material things to put children to the sword instead, and even as a last resort, to the ploughshare. He was born to shed light on all peoples but a ruler of His own people, Herod, wanted to snuff that light out, so afraid was he that it would outshine him. The depravity of human nature didn't start with Jesus and it hasn't ended with Him - yet. But the light shines still, the darkness has not consumed it, despite even the most systematic and brutal attempts, whether by king or soviet. It shines on still in the Church (despite everything), and given the example of the Magi, it shines outside the Church, too, because God used their own religion and foreign learning to bring them to Jesus. It is a light given for everybody to follow.
But how? How do we follow this light, or even find it? I think the answer is to be found in St Paul's First Epistle to the Thessalonians: “Pray without ceasing.” This doesn't mean go around all the time with gibbering lips, but be always aware of the presence of God, of His light within you and all His creation. Easier said than done, but we can start by doing as Jesus told us: first, repent, and be baptised; and second, “take, eat and drink in remembrance of me.” Baptism and, thereafter, frequent Confession and the Eucharist are the pillars of the Christian spiritual life.
I'll say more about staying mindful of our Baptism next week as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. But in the meantime, and throughout this Epiphany season, I want to challenge you to take away the presence of Christ which you receive when you come to the altar, and be aware of it; to stay mindful of the light of Christ, of his presence in you, not just when you come to Mass, but in between, too. Try as you go about your week to keep his name in your heart, to see His face in the people around you, even the really annoying ones. Let His light lead you, like the Magi, to the treasure beyond all price, beyond all gold, all myrrh, all frankincense: to the Christ and His Kingdom of everlasting peace.