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Why 'Homage'? The Story of Epiphany

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What's with the "homage"? In biblical account of the Wise Men traveling to see the Child Jesus; they come to pay him homage. King Herod, so threatened by any word of a messiah tries to trick the Magi by telling them to go and search diligently so that he too, might pay him homage. What's with all the "homage"? I mean the word, "homage". It's not a word you hear every day; homage. It's fun to say. It makes the old story sound so much fancier, so much more formal, so literary, so much more biblical, homage. I have always assumed that "homage" was just an old school expression. I figured in modern bible translations "homage" was left in the story of the Wise Men because it is such a classic, old, venerated expression ... "they paid him homage". Imagine my surprise when I opened the King James and found no "homage" at all. The wise men fell down and worshipped him, but there's no "homage". The word never appears in the King James. In the 17th century, "homage" was apparently reserved for the king. "Homage" doesn't appear in English translations until the mid to late 1980's . So much for old school.

I saw "The Kings Speech" over the holiday. It's the movie about King George VI, and his assent to the throne just as World War II was breaking out in Europe. The movie tells of the king's unique relationship with his speech therapist and the king's courage in the face of his life long stammer. As one could imagine with a movie about the royal family, there's a whole lot of homage going on. When the freshly minted, not yet coronated king all duded up in his royal dress comes back to see his family, they are busily packing for the move to the palace. His daughters are organizing their rocking horses when he comes around the corner expecting the kind of leg hug that every father loves from his 6 or 8 year old kids. The young Elizabeth, the one who would be queen, whispers to her sister Margaret, "curtsy". And they do, with a head bow, saying to their puzzled father, "Your royal highness". They were paying homage. There was a lot more homage in that movie than there is in the bible.

The form of the word in Greek, proskuneo, is translated as worship all through the gospel of Matthew. When the devil tries to tempt Jesus into falling down and worshipping him, it's the same word. After Jesus walked on the water, those in the boat worshipped Jesus. Same word as what the Magi did. And at the end of the gospel, when the disciples took hold of the feet of the Risen Christ and worshipped him, when he appeared there at the mountain where he gave the Great Commission, they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. The worship of the Risen Christ -- same as the Wise Men did. Same word. Some critics of translations using the word "homage" argue that it waters down the faithful response of worship coming from the Magi. Rooted in the feudal system of a servant paying homage to a lord, or a subject paying homage to a king, the term diminishes the faith-filled transformation in the hearts of those wise men from the east who came and knelt down and worshipped the Savior, Messiah, Christ the Lord; they worshipped the new born king in their heart. They worshipped him, they didn't just pay him homage!

So what's with the "homage"? It's because Herod is in the house. Not right there in the house with Mary and Joseph, but Herod is all through the story here in Matthew. "Homage" has everything to do with Herod. Here in the second chapter of Matthew, before the story is about the Wise Men, the story is about Herod. It's Herod's turf. Herod is all over and all around and those Wise Men traipse in there and pay homage not to Herod but to that baby; they bring royal trinkets, not to Herod but to Jesus; they kneel down and bow their head and pledge their allegiance, not to this king, but to that one. It would be like going to a Jets game and instead of standing up and cheering "JETS", you would cheer "JESUS". It would be like standing in the rotunda of the Capital building and pledging allegiance to the Son of God. It would be like standing next to the one you love before a gathering of friends and family all dressed up and pledging your lifelong vow not to one another but to the Messiah. It would be like sitting up there on Wall Street right outside the stock exchange and announcing to your colleagues that all the dividends, all the profit, all the bonus you need is right there in the manger, thank you very much.

When Herod is in the house, "homage" doesn't water down the transformation of the heart. It raises the stakes. Surrounded by Herod on all sides, and in every way, the Wise Men weren't kneeling before the Child Jesus to air their piety. They were pledging their lives. When one is surrounded every day, on all sides, and in every way by Herod, by the world that Herod represents; power, wealth and authority; "homage" is pretty much an everyday thing; an everyday decision; and everyday choice. It becomes a way of life. When Herod is in the house, it's all about the homage. It's not so old school after all.

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