The Epiphany of the Lord (Year A-B-C)
Lord, every nation on earth will adore you
“Christmas, begun on December 25, reaches its climax today in Epiphany: Christ revealed to all the nations, as indicated in the Homiletic Directory published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (n. 125; italics added). Therefore, “to hear them [the three readings of today’s liturgy] proclaimed and, with the Spirit’s help, to understand them more deeply – this is the Epiphany celebration. God’s holy Word unveils before the whole world the ultimate meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ.”
This Feast is celebrated on January 6th in some places (as traditionally in the past), but in many countries it is now “transferred” to the Sunday between the 2nd and 8th of January. The Solemnity of the Epiphany is missionary by its very nature because it celebrates, among other things, the event of the coming of the three Magi from the Far East to adore the child Jesus, recognizing in Him the king and the divine savior. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms: “In the magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation.” (no. 528). It is therefore about the Mystery of the manifestation/revelation of Christ the Lord to the “non-Israelites” and at the same time of the recognition of Christ as Lord by those nations, as beautifully expressed by Saint Paul in the second reading: “[the mystery] that the Gentiles are called, in Christ Jesus, to share the same inheritance [with Israel].” Thus, it is also the Feast of the missions, especially those in the East, and it is not by chance that the great missionary Society Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) has chosen the day of the Epiphany for its annual Patronal Feast. Happy Feast Day!
In today’s liturgical readings, three points are of particular significance and present three mysteries for deeper consideration.
1. The mystery of the guiding star
This is the mystery “number one” of this solemnity, since it always provokes curious attention, imagination and discussion. Without entering into details of the debate (let us save time for more serious issues!), let us recognize the mysterious and in some ways miraculous character of the star according to the Gospel account. It appeared in the Eastern sky but disappears above Jerusalem, and then reappears when the Magi depart, guiding them to “the place where the child was”. The last point is fundamental in order to affirm the entirely “supernatural” nature of the star, because indeed such a star should have descended sufficiently from above the heavens to indicate exactly, without equivocation, the child’s “place”. It would be useful here to recall what was stated in a previous meditation: “the Gospel accounts are written to convey above all spiritual theological messages, and not to offer the details of what happened as in a video/audio recording to satisfy the curiosity of readers.” What then is the message that the gospel wants to convey in the mystery of the star?
The path of the star in the Gospel narrative seems to suggest the following interpretation. The star is an important sign of God in creation, a sign that enlightens our minds, guiding us to an encounter with Himself in Jesus, God made man. However, in order to arrive at the end, this sign of creation must necessarily be integrated and completed with the indications of the Word of God himself revealed in Sacred Scripture. This is masterfully emphasized by Pope Benedict XVI: “the language of creation enables us to make good headway on the path towards God but does not give us the definitive light. In the end, it was indispensable for the Magi to listen to the voice of the Sacred Scriptures: they alone could show them the way. The true star is the word of God which, amidst of the uncertainty of human discourses, gives us the immense splendour of the Divine Truth " (Homily, January 6, 2011). Indeed, we might add, on the basis of the details of the Gospel story, that in the last stretch from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, suggested by Scripture, the star once again took on the role of guide for the Magi: “[the star] preceded them”, says the Gospel, on the road to the encounter with Jesus! The sign from nature collaborates harmoniously with that from Scripture, and both prove to be fundamental in the preparatio evangelica “evangelical preparation” to encounter Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Both are valid ways to be kept in mind in the mission of evangelization. They help and enrich each other in the journey of peoples towards Jesus, the Way to the Father.
What has been said up to now has yet another important element to consider for Jesus’ disciples, who go to distant lands for mission among peoples that may not have ever heard of Jesus or of the God of Israel. The missionaries need to remember that they are not the first to bring these peoples to Christ. In fact, it is God himself that always precedes them in a mysterious way, the way of the stars known only to Him! We must recognize the mystery of the star that God sends to lead men and women of every place and every generation to his Son. Recognizing the mystery in order to collaborate, in humility and gratitude, with God’s plan that always surprises and surpasses us, and this throughout the entire process from sowing to harvesting the ripe fruit of full adherence to Christ. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth.” (1 Cor 3:6-7).
2. The mystery of the infant, the real Star!
The star that accompanied the Magi “stopped” above, outside [implied] of the house, letting them enter where they “saw the child with Mary his mother.” The final scene of the adoration of the Magi is beautiful and powerfully evocative, albeit described in just a few words and all in silence! It takes a meditative silence of the mind and senses, perhaps still in front of the crib, to enter into the mystical silence in which the episode is wrapped and to notice a detail apparently trivial but theologically important: the star, the protagonist of the episode so far, remains not only outside the place where the child is, but also outside the story! In other words, from this moment on, the star totally disappears from the scene. Obviously, it logically does not appear in the story of what happened in the house, because it could not enter there with the Magi (because of its natural size!). Nevertheless, curiously, it is not mentioned even afterwards, when “by another road they [the Magi] returned to their country,” because it could and should have guided them. (If they had returned by the same path by which they came, it would have been understandable that the star was no longer needed, because they would have already known where to go!).
Apparently, that star in the sky that led the Magi to the child is no longer mentioned, not only because it has already happily accomplished its mission, but also and above all because that child, the future messiah king of Israel, is now the real star “in the flesh” before the eyes of the distinguished visitors from the East. The latter, as the evangelist indicates, came to adore him after having seen “his star”, where the possessive adjective “his” grammatically indicates a close relationship of possession between the person and the object, but also implies on the theological-spiritual level an almost identification between them. So much so that, only at the end of the journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (and not at the beginning of the reappearance of the star), just when the star “stopped over the place” of the child, St Matthew emphasizes that the Magi, “were overjoyed [literally “felt a great joy”] at seeing the star”. Here, once again, we have the expression of particular joy, as in the angelic proclamation on Christmas night: “I bring you good news of a great joy.” (Lk 2:10) Such a joy is always in reference to the new born divine child. Therefore, the Magi rejoiced greatly when they saw not so much the star as Jesus Himself, who is the end and fulfillment of the star.
It should be remembered in this regard that the star was the image of the King of Israel at the end of time, of that eschatological messiah, who in the vision of Jewish tradition will rule in the name of God over all the kings of the nations, or in the words of today’s Responsorial Psalm, “from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth”. In fact, it was already mystically glimpsed at in ancient times by Balaam, another pagan “magi” like those of the Gospel: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). The sacred author of the book of Revelation then echoes the declaration of the glorious Lord Jesus himself: “I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star” (Rev 22:16).
The true star is Jesus, the Word of the Father made flesh, the Word of God incarnate, who sums up in His person the light of the star and that of the Word of God in the Sacred Scriptures. And after the encounter with Him, they will no longer need a guide to return home because with Him and in Him they now know the Way! Thus it will be forever. (In this perspective, in some countries during the Epiphany there is a custom of wandering “star-singers”, i.e. children who go from house to house singing Christmas carols and sharing the holy joy of Christmas. They do this not only to raise funds for the missions in the world, but also to bring Jesus, the Star, to everyone, for an “encounter” that enlightens and renews life).
3. The mystery of the grace of the light that shines in the darkness of the heart
I am amazed at the faith of the Magi, expressed in the concrete gesture of prostration and adoration. It is truly a mystery how they came to believe in this little child next to a poor mother. And even if one can justify their act of faith by the influence of the signs of the star and the indications of Scripture, it always remains a mystery of the grace that God has given them, illuminating them with his Light that shines in the darkness of the heart. Thus, the light of the star, the light of Scripture will be a reflection of that true light of the divine child that begins to shine in the world, mysteriously drawing them to Himself. From now on, with the coming of Jesus, who will declare that he is the light of the world (cf. Jn 8:12a), the light will shine in the darkness and the darkness will not be able to overpower it (cf. Jn 1:5). This is why the prophet Isaiah exhorted Jerusalem, the symbol of God’s people, not without a sense of pride, “Arise, clothe yourself with light, for your light is coming, / the glory of the Lord shines above you,” and therefore, “the nations shall walk in your light.” Therefore, as Luke’s Gospel recounts, the righteous Simeon, “moved by the Spirit”, calls the child Jesus “a light to reveal you [God] to the nations and the glory of your people Israel” (Lk 2:32).
Jesus, the true light, will emphasize: “Whoever follows me [that is, whoever believes in me] does not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12b), and this light will certainly illuminate other darkness around him/her and he/she will be like a star that leads others to the encounter with Jesus, light of lights and star of stars. This is the great mystery of the grace of light which also happened to Saint Paul, while he was in the darkness of non-belief. This light led him to faith in Christ and to see clearly a marvelous revelation which he proclaims in the letter to the Ephesians: “the nations are called, in Christ Jesus, to share the same inheritance [with Israel]”, indeed, even more, “to form the same body and to be sharers in the same promise through the Gospel”. They are called to become full citizens of the new Jerusalem, the city of God, which “has no need of the light of the sun, nor of the light of the moon”, because “the glory of God illuminates it and its lamp is the Lamb!”, Christ the Lord (Rev 21:23).
In conclusion, I repeat the authoritative exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI in the homily mentioned above: “Dear brothers and sisters, let us allow ourselves to be guided by the star that is the word of God,” in the Sacred Scriptures and in the very person of Jesus, God’s Word incarnate, “let us follow it in our lives, walking with the Church in which the Word has pitched his tent. Our road will always be illumined by a light that no other sign can give us. And we too shall become stars for others, a reflection of that light which Christ caused to shine upon us. Amen.”