My dearest Sisters and Brothers,
In my home province of Palermo — and the surrounding villages of Palermo, the feast of the epiphany has always been deeply revered. Whole families prepare at home and in their parishes for this feast day. Here the celebrations are divided between the religious ceremony at our Mother Church (our parish) and a reenactment, held in the main square, which symbolise the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Celebrant immerses a cross three times in a basin of holy water and on the third immersion a dove is freed from its cage to fly freely away, which to us symbolises the descent of the Spirit Holy. This is followed by a solemn octave, followed by a solemn procession of a very large statue of the “Infant Jesus”. This is how I as a child began to understand the meaning Epiphany. But what does it all really mean, especially in this day and age.
The word Epiphany itself, is from Koine Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epipháneia, meaning a “manifestation” or an “appearance”, in this case the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ (theophaneia), His physical manifestation to all Gentiles, through the adoration of the Magi.
on the solemnity of the Epiphany, the Church continues to contemplate and celebrate the mystery of the birth of Jesus our Saviour. In particular, today’s anniversary underlines the universal destination and meaning of this birth. Becoming man in Mary’s womb, the Son of God came not only for the people of Israel, represented by the shepherds of Bethlehem, but also for the whole of humanity, represented by the Magi. And it is precisely upon the Magi and on their journey in search of the Messiah (Matthew 2: 1-12) that the Church today invites us to meditate and pray.
In the Gospel we have heard that they, arriving in Jerusalem from the East, ask: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” it was a common ancient belief that a new star appeared at the time of a ruler’s birth. Matthew also draws upon the Old Testament story of Balaam, who had prophesied that “A star shall advance from Jacob” (Numbers 24:17), though there the star means not an astronomical phenomenon but the king himself.
What kind of people were they, and what kind of star was it? They were probably wise men who examined the heavens carefully, but did not attempt to “read” the future in the stars, possibly for gaining profit; rather, they were men “in search” of something greater, in search of the true light, which would be able to indicate the way to lead one’s life. They were certain that within creation there exists, what we would call, the “signature of God”, a signature that man can and must try to discover and find the answer to. Perhaps one way to understand these Magi better and to grasp their desire to be guided by the signs of God is to pause to consider what they actually found, during their journey, within the great city of Jerusalem.
First they met King Herod. Certainly he was interested in the child of whom the Magi spoke; not, however, for the purpose of paying Him homage, as he wants to makes us believe by lying, but to suppress and kill Him. Herod is a man of power, who in the other can only perceive a rival to to his crown and someone that must be fought. After all, if we look at Herod more carefully, he also perceives God to be his rival, on reflection, a particularly dangerous type rival, he sees God as someone who would likes to deprive men of living freely, taking their autonomy, their power; a rival who points out the way to lead your life and therefore prevents you from doing anything you like and want. Herod hears the words of the prophet Micah “But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah least among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:1) told by his experts in the Holy Scriptures, but his only thought is for his throne. Therefore, God himself had to be clouded over and people had to be reduced to mere pawns to be strategically moved on a power chessboard.
Herod is a character that is not well liked, someone whom we instinctively discern negatively because of his hard-heartedness and savagery. But should we not also ask ourselves: perhaps there is a little of Herod in each one of us too? Perhaps we too sometimes see God as a rival? Perhaps we too are blind to the signs He sends us. We are deaf to His words, because we think that it limits our life styles and our wants, we feel that God does not allow us to manage our existence as we would like to? Without His interference.
Dear Sisters and Brothers, when we begin to perceive God in this manner we end up feeling disappointed, frustrated and unhappy, because we are not allowing ourselves to be guided by the One who is the cornerstone and focus point of all things. We have to remove all thoughtsof rivalry from our hearts and minds, we have to dispel the concept that making room for God within our lives will limit us; we must open ourselves to that certainty that God is the almighty love which never takes anything away, does not intimidate or menace, quite the opposite in fact, He is the only one capable of offering us the opportunity to live our lives fully, only through Him can we experience true joy.
The Magi then met up with the scholars, the theologians and the exēgētēs who interpret Holy Scriptures, who would be intimate with all the possible interpretations, who are able to memorise every part of the scriptures and who are therefore a valued and esteemed help for those who want to walk the correct path of God; “However”, says St. Augustine, “they love to be advisers to others, they like to point out the way, yet they themselves do not walk the path they advise for others, they remain unmoving as though rooted to the spot.” For them, the Scriptures have simply become an atlas to be studied as a novelty, a set of utterances and beliefs to be dissected, scrutinised and deliberate about in a scholarly manner, with newer and fandangled interpretations surfacing every year.
Yet again we must ask ourselves: is not there an impulse within all of us to ponder Sacred Scriptures, a vital treasure for the faith of the Church, an object of study and of expert debate rather than as the Book which shows us the way to attain a fullness of life in God? I believe that, the overwhelming character to discern the word of the Bible, read in the sustaining Traditions of the Church, like a truth which tells us who mankind is and how we can be fully realised, a truth that is followed every day in all walks of life, humanity as a whole; that is if we wish to build our very existence upon solid rock rather than on loose and powdery sand.
And so we come to the star. What kind of star was the one that the Magi saw and followed? Over the centuries this question has been the subject of discussion among astronomers, theologians and historians. Kepler, for example, believed that it was a “nova” or a “supernova”, that is, a stars which normally emit a weak glimmer of light, but suddenly has a powerful and luminous explosion which produces extraordinary light.
This is of course interesting, but it does not guide us toward what is essential for our understanding of that star. We have to go back to the fact that those men sought the “Signature of God” or the traces of God; they tried to read his “signature” within creation; they knew that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.” (Psalm 19:2); they were certain, that is, that God can be glimpsed in the creation. But, as wise men, they also knew that it was not with a telescope, but with the profound eye of reasoning, committed to a search of the ultimate sense of reality and with a desire for God being moved by faith, that it will certainly become possible to meet Him, indeed it is possible that God draw nearer to us. The universe was not created as a result of chance, as many would want us to believe. In contemplating Him, we are requested to study something quite profound: the wisdom of the Creator, the limitless creativity of God, His infinite love for all of us. We should not allow ourselves to be confined by theories that only ever reach a certain point and then — if we look more carefully — are not in contention with faith at all, they simply cannot explain the ultimate meaning of reality. In the beauty of the world, in its mysteries, in its grandeur and in its rationality, we cannot fail to read eternal clear-sightedness, and we cannot help but be guided by it to the only God, creator of heaven and earth. If we acquire this perception, we will see that the One who created the world and the One who was born in a manger in Bethlehem and who continues to live among us in the Eucharist, He is the same living God, who challenges us, loves us, wants to lead us towards productive lives and toeards eternal life.
Herod, the scripture exēgētēs, the star.
However, let us follow the journey of the Magi toward Jerusalem. Above the great city the star ceases to be visible, it vanishes. What does this signify? In this instance too, we have to interpret the sign assiduously. For these men it seemed logical to search for a new king within the royal palace, where all the wisest court advisors were to be found. Despite that, and most certainly to their amazement, they find that the newborn King was not in a places of rule a palace, a place of authority and intellectual achievement, even if within those walls they were offered a certain amount of inestimable knowledge about Him. Instead, they realised that, sometimes, power, even having knowledge, blocks the road to encountering the Child King.
The star then leads them toward the town Bethlehem, a small and insignificant town at that time; the star leads that them among the poor, among the humble, to find the King of the world. God’s criteria are somewhat different from those of humanity; God is not manifested in the power of this world, but in the humility of his love; the love that asks our freedom to be welcomed in order to transform us and to enable us to reach the One who is Love.
Yet, for us also things are not so different from what they were for the Magi. If we were asked for our opinion on how God should have saved the world, perhaps we would reply that He should have manifested all of his power to give the world a fairer trade system, in which everyone could have everything that they could ever wants. In reality, this would be an act of violence towards humanity, because it would deprive humanity of the fundamental elements that characterise it. If truth be told, neither our freedom nor our love would ever be called into question. The power of God is manifested in a completely different manner: in Bethlehem, where we meet the perceivable powerlessness of His love. This is where we have to go, and that’s where we will find the star of God that to many of us seems so elusive at times.
One last significant element of the story of the Magi also becomes very clear to us now: the language of creation allows us to travel a good stretch of the road towards God, but does not give us the decisive viewpoint. In the end, it was essential for the Magi to listen to the Word of the Holy Scriptures: only the Word would be able to show them the true path. The Word of God is the true star, which, in the uncertainty of humanities discourses, offers us the immense splendour of the Divine Truth.
Dear Sisters and Brothers, let ourselves be guided by the star, which is the Word of God, let us follow it for all of our lives, walking with the true Church, where the Word has pitched its tent. Our way will always be illuminated by a light that no other sign would be able to give us. We also, can become stars for others, a reflection of that light that Christ made shine within us.
My wish for this year is that you may be accompanied by such wise companions as the Magi. May their example help us to lift our gaze toward the star and to follow the greatest fulfilment of our Lords desire for all of us. My sincerest best hopes for all to have peace, love and clarity. For today is the day of Christ and His Church, a manifestation of His calling and His universal mission”. Amen.