SOLEMNITY OF THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
- Isaiah 60:1-6 Arise, shine; for your light has come
- Ephesians 3:1-12 This mystery has now been revealed
- Matthew 2:1-12 Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
by Fernando Armellini
A land of passage, the subject of disputes, a crossroads of peoples, cultures, races, and language! Palestine was invaded and occupied in turn by Egyptian Pharaohs and princes of Mesopotamia.
The desire to take revenge against the oppressors was cultivated for a long time by Israel (Ps 137:8-9), but retribution, retaliation, and revenge do not enter into God’s plans. An anonymous prophet of the 3rd century B.C. instead reveals what God’s dreams are. Here they are: “On that day the Egyptians and the Assyrians will worship the Lord together. Israel will be a third party with Egypt and Assyria—a blessing on earth. And Yahweh will bless them saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my creation, and Israel my heritage’” (Is 19:23-25).
A surprising, unheard of, and incredible prophecy: Israel is destined to be a mediator of salvation for her two historical enemies, the Assyrians and the Egyptians. A century before another prophet had announced: “The Lord will bring all the foreigners to his holy mountain and will give them joy in his house” (Is 56:6-7).
The dream of God came true when a star appears in Israel, Christ the Lord, as the Lord has promised (Num 24:17). His light drives away the darkness created by ancestral hates and convokes all the people in one family. This is the message of hope of the Epiphany, the feast of light.
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
From the earliest days of the Church, the magi have aroused keen interest among the faithful. They were one of the favorite themes of the early Christian artists: sarcophagi and paintings appear more often with the same scene of the Nativity.
Christians were not satisfied with the limited information that can be found in the Gospel text. Too many details are missing: where they came from? How many were there? What were their names? What kind of transport did they use? What did they do after returning to their home countries? Where are they buried?
To answer these questions, many legends were born. It was said that they were kings. They were three: one came from Africa, one from Asia and one from Europe, and that one was black, one yellow and one white. Guided by the star, they met at the same point and then they walked together on the last stretch of the journey to Bethlehem. They were called Gaspar (the beardless youth and colorful), Melchior (the hoary old man with a long beard), Balthazar (the mature man with a beard). They were clearly the symbols of the three ages of life. They were served by camels and dromedaries for the trip. After returning home, when they had already reached the ripe old age of 120 years, one day they saw the star again. They departed and found themselves back together in a city of Anatolia, to celebrate the Christmas Mass. On the same day, they were happy, and they died. Their remains went around the world: first in Constantinople, then to Milan until 1162, when they were transferred to the cathedral of Cologne, Germany.
These are pleasant and touching stories but they must be kept accurately distinct from the Gospel story so as not to compromise the message that the sacred text wants to communicate.
So, let us begin to clarify some details that in our minds are closely linked to the figure of the magi, but which have nothing to do with what Matthew narrates.
First of all, it was not said that there were three and that they were magi, nor kings. They had to belong to the category of diviners, astrologers, well known and appreciated people in antiquity for their wisdom, ability to interpret dreams, predict the future, and read the will of God through the ordinary or extraordinary events of life. It is no wonder that Matthew has introduced the magi in his story. He has chosen them as a symbol of all the pagans who opened their eyes to the light of Christ, even before the Jews themselves.
With respect to the star, it was widely believed that the birth of a great person was accompanied by the appearance in the sky of his star: big for the wealthy, tiny for the poor, blurry for the weak. The appearance of a comet was thought to be a sign of the advent of a new emperor. But did the wise men really see a comet?
Many astronomers have devoted time and energy to check if two thousand years ago, there appeared in the heavens a very bright star in concurrency with the birth of Jesus. They found that in 12-11 B.C. the comet Halley passed. Then in the year A.D. 7, three times the conjunction of Jupiter (the star of kingship) with Saturn (the star of the Jews—according to Tacitus) was verified.
They were admirable for their efforts. However, carried out in this way, the search of the comet of Bethlehem reminds me of the expedition to Ararat to find the ark of Noah.
Reading the text of Matthew, astronomers should easily realize that the evangelist does not allude to an astronomical phenomenon. The wise men saw the star that precedes them while they are going from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, then a star guides from north to south. This is really strange! All the celestial bodies move from east to west.
The star referred to by Matthew is not to be found in heaven but in the Bible. The evangelist writes for readers who are familiar with the Old Testament for centuries and are waiting to see the appearance of a star mentioned in a mysterious prophecy in the book of Numbers.
In Numbers 22–24 there was a curious story of Balaam and his talking donkey. Balaam was a soothsayer, a magus of the East, just like the ones mentioned in the Gospel today. One day he unwittingly makes a prophecy: “I see it, but it is not an event that will happen shortly; I behold him but not near. A star shall come forth from Jacob, a king, born of Israel, rises … One of Jacob will dominate over his enemies” (Num 24:17-19).
So Balaam, “the man of penetrating eye” (Num 24:3) spoke, about 1200 years before the birth of Jesus. Since then, the Israelites began to wait anxiously for the rising of this star that was none other than the Messiah himself. Presenting to us the wise men of the East who see the star, the evangelist wants to tell his readers: the expected deliverer rose from the descendant of Jacob. It is Jesus. He is the star.
Should we then remove the comet from our cribs? No! Let us contemplate the star and point it also to our children, but we must explain to them that the star is not a star in the sky, but it is Jesus. He is the light that enlightens every person (Jn 1:9). He is the brilliant morning star (Rev 22:16).
Matthew writes in the 80’s A.D. and what does he verify? He notes that the heathens entered en masse in the church. They recognized and adored the star, while the Jews, who were waiting for so many centuries, refused him. The story of the magi is, therefore, a “parable” of what was happening in the Christian community at the end of the first century. The pagans who sought the truth with honesty and perseverance have received from God the light to find it.
Matthew highlights another particular: the magi (the symbol of the pagan peoples) would never have come to Christ if the Jews, with their Scripture, had not shown them the way. Israel may not have followed the star but accomplished her mission. She was the mediator of salvation for all peoples.
Now we try to connect today’s Gospel with the First Reading. The prophet said that when in Jerusalem the light of the Lord shine, all nations would be on their way to the holy city, bringing their gifts. With the story of the magi, Matthew is telling us that this prophecy is fulfilled: guided by the light of the Messiah, the Gentiles (represented by the magi) make their way to Jerusalem, to bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The popular piety applied to each of these gifts a symbolic meaning: gold indicates the recognition of Jesus as king; incense represents the adoration in front of his divinity; myrrh recalls his humanity—this fragrant resin will be remembered during the passion (Mk 15:23; Jn 19:39).
Even the story of the mounts was not invented for nothing. It is still the First Reading today that speaks to us of “a troop of camels and dromedaries” that come from the East (Is 60:6). Unlike the shepherds who contemplated and rejoiced in front of the salvation that the Lord had revealed to them, the magi prostrated themselves in worship (v. 11). Their gesture recalls the court’s ceremony—the prostration and kissing of the feet of the king—or kissing the ground before the image of the deity. The pagans have therefore recognized as their king and their God, the child of Bethlehem and offered him their gifts.
They have become the symbol of people around the world who are led by the light of Christ. They are the image of the Church, made up of people of every race, tribe, language, and nation. Entering the Church does not mean giving up one’s identity. It does not mean submitting to an unjust and false uniformity. Every person and every people maintain their cultural characteristics. With these, they enrich the universal Church. Nobody is so rich as not to need anything and not so poor as not having anything to offer.
READ: John the Baptist is a prophet pointing out the presence and demands of God. John preaches repentance. He recognizes the divine in Jesus, and at Jesus’ insistence, baptizes him.
REFLECT: Our baptism makes us sons and daughters of God. It confirms our being loved by God. How often must the baptized “rethink’ how they are living according to the teachings of Jesus. Our baptism confirms our being loved by God and provides us with the mission to love others like His Son Jesus.
PRAY: Let us claim God’s love in Jesus. We pray for the audacity to express this love to others, especially to those who need it most.
ACT: Think of someone you want to share God’s love with but do not have the courage to do so. Try to do something about it now!
Let us dream, let us seek and let us adore.
by Pope Francis
The Magi travel towards Bethlehem. Their pilgrimage speaks also to us, who are called to journey towards Jesus, for he is the North Star that lights up the sky of life and guides our steps towards true joy. Yet where did the Magi’s pilgrimage to encounter Jesus begin? What made these men of the East set out on their journey?
They had excellent reasons not to depart. They were wise men and astrologers, famous and wealthy. Having attained sufficient cultural, social and economic security, they could have remained content with what they already knew and possessed. Instead, they let themselves be unsettled by a question and by a sign: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star…” (Mt 2:2). They did not allow their hearts to retreat into the caves of gloom and apathy; they longed to see the light. They were not content to plod through life, but yearned for new and greater horizons. Their eyes were not fixed here below; they were windows open to the heavens. As Benedict XVI said, the Magi were “men with a restless heart… They were filled with expectation, not satisfied with their secure income and their respectable place in society… They were seekers after God” (Homily, 6 January 2013).
Where did it originate, this spirit of healthy restlessness that led them to set out on their journey? It was born of desire. That was their secret: the capacity to desire. Let us think about this. To desire means to fuel the fire that burns within us; it drives us to look beyond what is immediate and visible. To desire means embracing life as a mystery that surpasses us, as an ever-present cranny in the wall that beckons us to look into the distance, since life is not just our here and now, but something much greater. It is like a blank canvas that cries out for colour. A great painter, Vincent Van Gogh, once said that his need for God drove him to go outside at night to paint the stars. For that is the way God made us: brimming with desire, directed, like the Magi, towards the stars. With no exaggeration, we can say that we are what we desire. For it is our desires that enlarge our gaze and drive our lives forward, beyond the barriers of habit, beyond banal consumerism, beyond a drab and dreary faith, beyond the fear of becoming involved and serving others and the common good. In the words of Saint Augustine, “our entire life is an exercise of holy desire” (Homily on the First Letter of John, IV, 6).
Brothers and sisters, as it was for the Magi, so it is for us. The journey of life and faith demands a deep desire and inner zeal. Sometimes we live in a spirit of a “parking lot”; we stay parked, without the impulse of desire that carries us forward. We do well to ask: where are we on our journey of faith? Have we been stuck all too long, nestled inside a conventional, external and formal religiosity that no longer warms our hearts and changes our lives? Do our words and our liturgies ignite in people’s hearts a desire to move towards God, or are they a “dead language” that speaks only of itself and to itself? It is sad when a community of believers loses its desire and is content with “maintenance” rather than allowing itself to be startled by Jesus and by the explosive and unsettling joy of the Gospel. It is sad when a priest has closed the door of desire, sad to fall into clerical functionalism, very sad.
The crisis of faith in our lives and in our societies also has to do with the eclipse of desire for God. It is related to a kind of slumbering of the spirit, to the habit of being content to live from day to day, without ever asking what God really wants from us. We peer over earthly maps, but forget to look up to heaven. We are sated with plenty of things, but fail to hunger for our absent desire for God. We are fixated on our own needs, on what we will eat and wear (cf. Mt 6:25), even as we let the longing for greater things evaporate. And we find ourselves living in communities that crave everything, have everything, yet all too often feel nothing but emptiness in their hearts: closed communities of individuals, bishops, priests or consecrated men and women. Indeed the lack of desire leads only to sadness and indifference, to sad communities, sad priests or bishops.
Let us look first to ourselves and ask: How is the journey of my faith going? This is a question that we can ask ourselves today, each one of us. How is the journey of my faith going? Is it parked or is it on the move? Faith, if it is to grow, has to begin ever anew. It needs to be sparked by desire, to take up the challenge of entering into a living and lively relationship with God. Does my heart still burn with desire for God? Or have I allowed force of habit and my own disappointments to extinguish that flame? Today, brothers and sisters, is the day we should ask these questions. Today is the day we should return to nurturing our desire. How do we do this? Let us go to the Magi and learn from their “school of desire”. They will teach us in their school of desire. Let us look at the steps they took, and draw some lessons from them.
In the first place, they set out at the rising of the star. The Magi teach us that we need to set out anew each day, in life as in faith, for faith is not a suit of armour that encases us; instead, it is a fascinating journey, a constant and restless movement, ever in search of God, always discerning our way forward.
Then, in Jerusalem the Magi ask questions: they inquire where the Child is to be found. They teach us that we need to question. We need to listen carefully to the questions of our heart and our conscience, for it is there that God often speaks to us. He addresses us more with questions than with answers. We must learn this well: God addresses us more with questions than with answers. Yet let us also be unsettled by the questions of our children, and by the doubts, hopes and desires of the men and women of our time. We need to entertain questions.
The Magi then defy Herod. They teach us that we need a courageous faith, one that is unafraid to challenge the sinister logic of power, and become seeds of justice and fraternity in societies where in our day modern Herods continue to sow death and slaughter the poor and innocent, amid general indifference.
Finally, the Magi return “by another way” (Mt 2:12). They challenge us to take new paths. Here we see the creativity of the Spirit who always brings out new things. That is also one of the tasks of the Synod we are currently undertaking: to journey together and to listen to one another, so that the Spirit can suggest to us new ways and paths to bring the Gospel to the hearts of those who are distant, indifferent or without hope, yet continue to seek what the Magi found: “a great joy” (Mt 2:10). We must always move forwards.
At the end of the Magi’s journey came the climactic moment: once they arrived at their destination, “they fell down and worshiped the Child” (cf. v. 11). They worshiped. Let us never forget this: the journey of faith finds renewed strength and fulfilment only when it is made in the presence of God. Only if we recover our “taste” for adoration will our desire be rekindled. Desire leads us to adoration and adoration renews our desire. For our desire for God can only grow when we place ourselves in his presence. For Jesus alone heals our desires. From what? From the tyranny of needs. Indeed, our hearts grow sickly whenever our desires coincide merely with our needs. God, on the other hand, elevates our desires; he purifies them and heals them of selfishness, opening them to love for him and for our brothers and sisters. This is why we should not neglect adoration, that prayer of silent adoration which is not so common among us. Please let us not forget adoration.
In this way, like the Magi, we will have the daily certainty that even in the darkest nights a star continues to shine. It is the star of the Lord, who comes to care for our frail humanity. Let us set out on the path towards him. Let us not give apathy and resignation the power to drive us into a cheerless and banal existence. Let our restless hearts embrace the restlessness of the Spirit. The world expects from believers a new burst of enthusiasm for the things of heaven. Like the Magi, let us lift up our eyes, listen to the desire lodged in our hearts, and follow the star that God makes shine above us. As restless seekers, let us remain open to God’s surprises.
Brothers and sisters, let us dream, let us seek and let us adore.