Although the Canadian Church moved the official celebration of the Epiphany to the first Sunday of January, the Universal Church still celebrates the feast on January 6th. In Rome today, Pope Benedict XVI marked the solemnity with Mass at St. Peter's Basilica and gave a homily reflecting on the significance of the Magi, or the Three Wise Men, as we sometimes call them.
Pope Benedict compares the first reading and the Gospel, pointing out that in the first reading the prophet Isaiah has a vision of the day when Kings will kneel before the Messiah while in Matthew's Gospel when Jesus is born the only people who come to see him are the shepherds and the Magi, three men who were not particularly noteworthy.
How can this be a fulfilment of Isaiah's vision?
The Holy Father points out that the three Magi were significant for several reasons: first because they not only took notice of the star, but they understood what it meant and set off to find out exactly where Jesus was. The people of Bethlehem certainly saw the star, but few took note of it and even fewer actually stopped to figure out what it meant. Second, these men had plotted their course in advance, they arrived along a carefully planned path and knew exactly how they were going to get home... until they came face to face with the newborn Jesus. In that moment they knew they could not return the way they came, they could not go back to King Herod from whose home they had come. They changed their course and parted ways, each returning to his own homeland separately. Third, with their pilgrimage to find the newborn Christ, in the gifts they offered, and in the unexpected change of their return voyage home, the Magi are the first of many who throughout the ages have done exactly the same: encountered Christ and changed their path.
Perhaps this is where New Year's resolutions come from. Encountering the newborn Christ on Christmas Eve, if we are humble enough to acknowledge him and his reign in our hearts, we are changed and suddenly can't continue along the same path we were on but must change course and follow the path He sets out for us.
If you missed the live Salt + Light broadcast of the Epiphany Mass this morning, you can see encore presentations of it today at noon and 8pm ET.
For the full text of Pope Benedict's homily on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, continue reading.
SOLEMNITY OF THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI
Saint Peter's Basilica
Wednesday, January 6th 2009
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, on the solemnity of the Epiphany, the great light that radiated from the stable in Bethlehem, to the Magi who came from the East, envelops all of humanity.
The first reading, from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, and the Gospel of Matthew which we just heard, place the promise and it’s fulfilment side by side in that unique tension that one finds when reading the old and new testament side by side. We see appear before us a splendid vision of the prophet Isaiah who, after the humiliation suffered by the people of Israel at the hands of the powerful, sees the moment when the great light of God – seemingly powerless and unable to protect his people- will rise on this earth and kings and nations will kneel at the feet of their most precious treasure.
E il cuore del popolo fremerà di gioia.
And the hearts of the people will be filled with joy.
In comparison the image that Matthew presents seems poor and resigned: it seems impossible that it is the fulfilment of the prophet Isaiah’s words.
At Bethlehem, instead of the Kings of the earth and the powerful, the Magi arrive, unknown figures who were perhaps viewed with some suspicion, in any case not particularly noteworthy figures.
The people of Jerusalem are told of what has happend, but they dont’ find it necessary to inconvenience themselves, even in Bethlehem it seems no one takes note of the birth of this child who the Magi call the King of the Jews, or of the three Magi who have come from the east to pay him hommage. Shortly after when King Herod exercises his power, forcing the Holy Family to flee to Egypt and when he gives proof of his cruelty with the massacre of the innocents, the episode of the Magi seems erased and forgotten. It is understandable that the heart and soul of the faithful throughout the centuries would be more attracted to the vision of the prophet than the sober story told by the Gospel writer. This can be seen in our manger scenes in whichwe camels, various other animals, and the powerful kings of this earth kneel before the Child and place their gifts at his feet.
But we need to give more attention to what these two texts communicate to us.
In reality, what did Isaiah see in his prophetic gaze?
In that moment he sees a reality that will leave it’s mark on all of history. However, even the events that Matthew narrates, which end with the magi’s hurried return to their homelands, are not insignificant and cannot be overlooked.
These events are a beginning. Those figures from the east are not the last, but the first of a great procession of people who, across the ages, have recognized the message of the star, who have walked the path indicated by Sacred Scripture and to find Him who appears weak and fragile but who has the power to give the human heart the greatest and deepest joy it can ever know. In Him is manifested the stupendous reality that God knows us and is with us, that his greatness and power are not according to the logic of this world but in the logic of a defenseless child whose only power is in the love he entrusts to us. Throughout history there have been many people who, enlightened by the light of the star, find the path to Him. All of them have, in their own way, experienced what the Magi experienced.
They brought gold, incense and myrrh. They are not exactly things that are needed on a daily basis. In that moment the Holy Family would have had greater need for things other than incense and myrrh which also wouldn’t have been very useful to them at that moment. But these gifts have a profound significance: they are an act of justice. In fact, according to the way of thinking in the East at that time, those gifts demonstrated the recognition of a person as God and King: those gifts are an act of submission. They say that at that moment the gift givers belong to the sovereign and recognize his authority. The consequence of this immediate. The Magi can no longer continue along their planned path, they cannot return to Herod, they can no longer be in alliance with that powerful and cruel soveriegn. They are forever rerouted along the path of the Child, the path that will have them bypass the great and powerful of this world and lead them to He who is waiting for them among the poor, the path of the only love that can transform the world.
Not only the magi were set upon this new course, but their actions gave way to something new, a new path was forged and a new light rose over the world that has never gone out. The prophet’s vision was fulfilled: that light cannot be ignored by the world: mankind will move toward that Child and will be illuminated by the joy that only He can give. The light of Bethlehem continues to shine over the earth.
Saint Augustine reminds, “Even we who, recognizing Christ our King and priest who died for us, have honored him as if we were offering gold, frankincense and myrrh; the only thing left for us to do is give testimony by taking a different path from the one were on before.” (Sermo 202. In Epiphania Domini, 3,4)
Thus, if we read both the promise of the prophet Isaiah and it’s fulfilment in the Gospel of Matthew in the wider context of all of history, it becomes clear that what is being said, and what we seek to reproduce in the manger scene is not a dream, nor is it just an emotional game deprived of all realtiy, but it is the Truth that radiates through the world, even if Herod always seems more powerful and the Child seems to have been relegated to the realm of those who have no importance and are even stepped upon.
Only in that child is the power of God manifested, the power that unites mankind throughout the ages because under His protection runs the path of that love that transforms the world. Even if few inhabitands of Bethlehem have become plentiful, the believers in Jesus Christ always seems to be a small group. Many have seen the star but few have understood the message.
Scripture Scholars in the time of Christ knew very well the word of God. They were perfectly capable of saying exactly what could be found in His world about the place where the Messiah would be born, but, as Saint Agustine says, “they became like stone that mark a path. While showing others the way they remained inert and immobile.” (Sermo 199. In Epiphania Domini, 1,2)
We can ask ourselves then: why is it that some can see and find, while others can’t? What is it that opens the eyes of the heart? Those people who remain indifferent, and those who point the way but don’t follow it, what are they missing? We can answer: too much security in themselves, the pretext that they know the truth perfectly well, the presumption that comes from having already passed judgement on things closes their hearts to God’s news. They are secure with the idea of the world that they have created for themselves and they don’t let their most interior selves be upset by the adventure that is a God who wants to meet them. They place their trust in themselves more than in Him and they don’t think it’s possible that God is great enough to make himself small, to be able to truly get close to us.
Ultimately, what is missing is an authentic humility that knows how to sumbit to something bigger, and the authentic courage that leads us to believe in that which is truly great, even if it manifests itself in a defenseless child.
What’s missing is the ability to be children at heart, to be awed, and to move beyond oneself to start along the path lit by the star, the path of God.
The Lord however has the power to make us see and save us. Let us ask him, then, to give us a wise and innocent heart that lets us see the star and His mercy, that lets us start along the path to Him so that we may find him and be flooded with the great light and with the joy that he has brougth into this world. Amen!