Scott Hahn with David Scott
An “epiphany” is an appearance. In today’s readings, with their rising stars, splendorous lights and mysteries revealed, the face of the child born on Christmas day appears.
Herod, in today’s Gospel, asks the chief priests and scribes where the Messiah is to be born. The answer Matthew puts on their lips says much more, combining two strands of Old Testament promise—one revealing the Messiah to be from the line of David (see 2 Samuel 2:5), the other predicting “a ruler of Israel” who will “shepherd his flock” and whose “greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth” (see Micah 5:1-3).
Those promises of Israel’s king ruling the nations resound also in today’s Psalm. The psalm celebrates David’s son, Solomon. His kingdom, we sing, will stretch “to the ends of the earth,” and the world’s kings will pay Him homage. That’s the scene too in today’s First Reading, as nations stream from the East, bearing “gold and frankincense” for Israel’s king.
The Magi’s pilgrimage in today’s Gospel marks the fulfillment of God’s promises. The Magi, probably Persian astrologers, are following the star that Balaam predicted would rise along with the ruler’s staff over the house of Jacob (see Numbers 24:17).
Laden with gold and spices, their journey evokes those made to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba and the “kings of the earth” (see 1 Kings 10:2,25; 2 Chronicles 9:24). Interestingly, the only other places where frankincense and myrrh are mentioned together are in songs about Solomon (see Song of Songs 3:6, 4:6,14).
One greater than Solomon is here (see Luke 11:31). He has come to reveal that all peoples are “co-heirs” of the royal family of Israel, as today’s Epistle teaches.
His manifestation forces us to choose: Will we follow the signs that lead to Him as the wise Magi did? Or will we be like those priests and the scribes who let God’s words of promise become dead letters on an ancient page?
Saint Bernard (1091-1153)
1st Sermon for the Epiphany
God’s intention was not only to come down to earth but to become known there; not only to be born but to be recognised. In fact, it is with this recognition in mind that we hold this celebration of the Epiphany, the great day of his manifestation.
For it was today that the Magi came from the East in search of the Sun of Justice at its rising (Mal 3,20), he of whom we read: “Behold a man whose name is the Orient,” (Zec 6,12 Vul.).
Today they have adored the newborn child of the Virgin, following the guidance of a new star. What great cause for joy do we not find here, my brethren, as also in those words of the apostle Paul: “The kindness and generous love of God our Saviour have appeared,” (Tit 3,4)…
What is this that you are doing, you Magi? What is this that you are doing? Are you adoring an infant at the breast in a wretched hovel, wrapped in miserable rags? Can a child such as this really be God?
Yet, “The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord’s throne is in heaven.” (Ps 11 ,4) while you are looking for him in a common stable, held in his mother’s arms!
Whatever are you doing? Why are you offering him gold? Could such as one as this be king? Where, then, is his royal court, his throne, his crowd of courtiers? Can a stable be a palace, a crib a throne, Mary and Joseph members of his court? How on earth could wise men be so crazy as to adore a baby, as contemptible by reason of his age as for the poverty of his family?
Mad? Yes, they have become so in order to be wise. The Holy Spirit has taught them already what the apostle Paul would later proclaim: “Whoever would be wise, let him become a fool. For since the world, in all its wisdom, did not come to know God in his Wisdom, it has pleased God to save those who believe through the foolishness of the Gospel we proclaim, (cf 1Cor 1,21)…
And so they prostrate themselves before this poor child; they do him homage as to a king; they adore him as a God. He who outwardly guided them by a star has cast his light into the interior of their hearts.
Blessed Guerric of Igny
3rd Sermon for Epiphany (SC 166)
“O God, on this day you revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations” (Collect)
“Arise, be enlightened Jerusalem, for your Light has come!” (Is 60,1). Blessed is the Light which has “come in the name of the Lord”, “The Lord is God and has shone upon us” (Ps 118,26-27). In virtue of it this day also, sanctified by the enlightening of the Church, has shone upon us.
Thanks be to you, true Light, you that “enlighten every man coming into this world” (Jn 1,9), you who for this very purpose have come into this world as a man. Jerusalem has been enlightened, our mother (Gal 4,26), mother of all those who have deserved to be enlightened, so that she now shines upon all who are in the world. Thanks be to you, true Light, you who have become a lamp to enlighten Jerusalem and to make God’s word “a lamp for my feet” (Ps 118,105)…
For not only has it been enlightened: it has been “raised aloft on a candlestick”, one all of gold (Mt 5,15; Ex 25,31). The city sits on the mountain of mountains (cf. Mt 5,14)… so that its gospel may shine out far and wide, as far and as wide as the world’s empire spreads
God, you who give light to all nations, of you we will sing: “Behold the Lord will come and enlighten the eyes of his servants” (cf. Jude 14). Behold, you have come, my Light: “Enlighten my eyes, that I may never fall asleep in death” (Ps 13,4)… You have come, O Light of the faithful, and behold you have granted us today to rejoice at the enlightening of faith, that is, of our lamp. Grant us also to rejoice always at the enlightening of the darkness that remains to us…
This is the way in which you should advance, O faithful soul, in order that you may cast off the darkness of this world and arrive at your home country of eternal brightness, where “your darkness will be like midday” (Is 58,10) and “night will be lit up like day” (Ps 139,12).
Then indeed, then “you will see and be radiant, your heart will thrill and rejoice” (Is 60,5), when the whole earth is filled with the majesty of unbounded light and “his glory is seen in you” (Is 60,2)… “Come and let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Is 2,5); as “children of light” let us walk “from brightness to brightness, as led by the Lord who is Spirit” (2Cor 3,18).
Pope Benedict XVI
Angelus Address, January 6, 2006
The light that shone in the night at Christmas illuminating the Bethlehem Grotto, where Mary, Joseph and the shepherds remained in silent adoration, shines out today and is manifested to all. The Epiphany is a mystery of light, symbolically suggested by the star that guided the Magi on their journey. The true source of light, however, the “sun that rises from on high” (cf. Lk 1: 78), is Christ.
In the mystery of Christmas, Christ’s light shines on the earth, spreading, as it were, in concentric circles. First of all, it shines on the Holy Family of Nazareth: the Virgin Mary and Joseph are illuminated by the divine presence of the Infant Jesus. The light of the Redeemer is then manifested to the shepherds of Bethlehem, who, informed by an Angel, hasten immediately to the grotto and find there the “sign” that had been foretold to them: the Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger (cf. Lk 2: 12).
The shepherds, together with Mary and Joseph, represent that “remnant of Israel”, the poor, the anawim, to whom the Good News was proclaimed.
Finally, Christ’s brightness shines out, reaching the Magi who are the first-fruits of the pagan peoples.
The palaces of the rulers of Jerusalem, to which, paradoxically, the Magi actually take the news of the Messiah’s birth, are left in the shade. Moreover, this news does not give rise to joy but to fear and hostile reactions. The divine plan was mysterious: “The light came into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were wicked” (Jn 3: 19).
But what is this light? Is it merely an evocative metaphor or does this image correspond to reality? The Apostle John writes in his First Letter: “God is light; in him there is no darkness” (I Jn 1: 5); and further on he adds: “God is love”. These two affirmations, taken together, help us to understand better: the light that shone forth at Christmas, which is manifested to the peoples today, is God’s love revealed in the Person of the Incarnate Word. Attracted by this light, the Magi arrived from the East.
In the mystery of the Epiphany, therefore, alongside an expanding outward movement, a movement of attraction toward the centre is expressed which brings to completion the movement already written in the Old Covenant. The source of this dynamism is God, One in Three Persons, who draws all things and all people to himself. The Incarnate Person of the Word is presented in this way as the beginning of universal reconciliation and recapitulation (cf. Eph 1: 9-10).
He is the ultimate destination of history, the point of arrival of an “exodus”, of a providential journey of redemption that culminates in his death and Resurrection. Therefore, on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, the liturgy foresees the so-called “Announcement of Easter”: indeed, the liturgical year sums up the entire parable of the history of salvation, whose centre is “the Triduum of the Crucified Lord, buried and risen”.
In the liturgy of the Christmas season this verse of Psalm 98 frequently recurs as a refrain: “The Lord has made his salvation known: in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice” (v. 2).
These are words that the Church uses to emphasize the “epiphanic” dimension of the Incarnation: the Son of God becoming human, his entry into history, is the crowning point of God’s revelation of himself to Israel and to all the peoples. In the Child of Bethlehem, God revealed himself in the humility of the “human form”, in the “form of a slave”, indeed, of one who died on a cross (cf. Phil 2: 6-8). This is the Christian paradox.
Indeed, this very concealment constitutes the most eloquent “manifestation” of God. The humility, poverty, even the ignominy of the Passion enable us to know what God is truly like. The Face of the Son faithfully reveals that of the Father. This is why the mystery of Christmas is, so to speak, an entire “epiphany”. The manifestation to the Magi does not add something foreign to God’s design but unveils a perennial and constitutive dimension of it, namely, that “in Christ Jesus the Gentiles are now coheirs… members of the same body and sharers of the promise through… the Gospel” (Eph 3: 6).
At a superficial glance, God’s faithfulness to Israel and his manifestation to the peoples could seem divergent aspects; they are actually two sides of the same coin. In fact, according to the Scriptures, it is precisely by remaining faithful to his Covenant of love with the people of Israel that God also reveals his glory to other peoples. Grace and fidelity (cf. Ps 89: 2), “mercy and truth” (cf. Ps 85: 11), are the content of God’s glory, they are his “name”, destined to be known and sanctified by people of every language and nation.
However, this “content” is inseparable from the “method” that God chose to reveal himself, that is, absolute fidelity to the Covenant that reaches its culmination in Christ. The Lord Jesus, at the same time and inseparably, is “a light revealing to the Gentiles the glory of your people Israel” (Lk 2: 32), as the elderly Simeon was to exclaim, inspired by God, taking the Child in his arms when his parents presented him at the temple. The light that enlightens the peoples – the light of the Epiphany – shines out from the glory of Israel – the glory of the Messiah born, in accordance with the Scriptures, in Bethlehem, “the city of David” (cf. Lk 2: 4).
The Magi worshipped a simple Child in the arms of his Mother Mary, because in him they recognized the source of the twofold light that had guided them: the light of the star and the light of the Scriptures. In him they recognized the King of the Jews, the glory of Israel, but also the King of all the peoples.
The mystery of the Church and her missionary dimension are also revealed in the liturgical context of the Epiphany. She is called to make Christ’s light shine in the world, reflecting it in herself as the moon reflects the light of the sun.
The ancient prophecies concerning the holy city of Jerusalem, such as the marvellous one in Isaiah that we have just heard: “Rise up in splendour! Your light has come…. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance” (Is 60: 1-3), have found fulfilment in the Church.
This is what disciples of Christ must do: trained by him to live in the way of the Beatitudes, they must attract all people to God through a witness of love: “In the same way, your light must shine before men so that they may see goodness in your deeds and give praise to your heavenly Father” (Mt 5: 16). By listening to Jesus’ words, we members of the Church cannot but become aware of the total inadequacy of our human condition, marked by sin.
The Church is holy, but made up of men and women with their limitations and errors. It is Christ, Christ alone, who in giving us the Holy Spirit is able to transform our misery and constantly renew us. He is the light of the peoples, the lumen gentium, who has chosen to illumine the world through his Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 1).
“How can this come about?”, we also ask ourselves with the words that the Virgin addresses to the Archangel Gabriel. And she herself, the Mother of Christ and of the Church, gives us the answer: with her example of total availability to God’s will – “fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum” (Lk 1: 38) – she teaches us to be a “manifestation” of the Lord, opening our hearts to the power of grace and faithfully abiding by the words of her Son, light of the world and the ultimate end of history. So be it!
Pope Benedict XVI
Angelus Address, January 6, 2007
We celebrate with joy the Solemnity of the Epiphany, the “manifestation” of Christ to the peoples who are represented by the Magi, mysterious figures who came from the East. We celebrate Christ, the destination of the pilgrimage of peoples in search of salvation.
In the First Reading we listened to the Prophet, inspired by God, to contemplate Jerusalem as a beacon of light which guides all the peoples on their journey through the darkness and fog of the earth.
The glory of the Lord shines on the holy City and attracts first of all his own children, displaced and dispersed, but also, at the same time, the pagan nations who come to Zion from all sides as to a common homeland, enriching it with their goods (cf. Is 60: 1-6).
The Second Reading presents what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians, that is, through God’s loving designs the convergence of Jews and Gentiles in the one Church of Christ was “the mystery” made manifest in the fullness of time, the “grace” of which God had made him steward (cf. Eph 3: 2-3, 5-6).
In a little while we will say in the Preface: “Today, you revealed in Christ your eternal plan of salvation and showed him as the light of all peoples”.
Twenty centuries have passed since that mystery was revealed and brought about in Christ, but it has not yet reached fulfilment. My beloved Predecessor, John Paul II, began his Encyclical on the Church’s mission by writing: “As the second Millennium after Christ’s Coming draws to an end, an overall view of the human race shows that this mission is still only beginning” (Redemptoris Missio, n. 1).
Several spontaneous questions arise: in what sense is Christ still the lumen gentium, the Light of the peoples, today? What point – if one can so describe it – has the universal journey of the peoples toward God reached? Is it in a phase of progress or of regression? And further: who are the Magi today? How, thinking of today’s world, should we interpret these mysterious figures of the Gospel? To answer these questions, I would like to return to what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council said in this regard. And I am pleased to add that immediately after the Council, the Servant of God, Paul VI, exactly 40 years ago on precisely 26 March 1967, dedicated to the development of the peoples his Encyclical Populorum Progressio.
The whole of the Second Vatican Council was truly stirred by the longing to proclaim Christ, the Light of the world, to contemporary humanity. In the heart of the Church, from the summit of her hierarchy, emerged the impelling desire, awakened by the Spirit, for a new epiphany of Christ in the world, a world that the modern epoch had profoundly transformed and that, for the first time in history, found itself facing the challenge of a global civilization in which the centre could no longer be Europe or even what we call the West and the North of the world.
The need to work out a new world political and economic order was emerging but, at the same time and above all, one that would be both spiritual and cultural, that is, a renewed humanism.
This observation became more and more obvious: a new world economic and political order cannot work unless there is a spiritual renewal, unless we can once again draw close to God and find God in our midst.
Before the Second Vatican Council, the enlightened minds of Christian thinkers had already intuited and faced this epochal challenge.
Well, at the beginning of the third millennium, we find ourselves in the midst of this phase of human history that now focuses on the word “globalization”.
Moreover, we realize today how easy it is to lose sight of the terms of this same challenge, precisely because we are involved in it: this risk is heavily reinforced by the vast expansion of the mass media. Although, on the one hand, the media increase information indefinitely, on the other, they seem to weaken our capacity for critical synthesis.
Today’s Solemnity can offer us this perspective, based on the manifestation of a God who revealed himself in history as the Light of the world to guide humanity and lead it at last into the Promised Land where freedom, justice and peace reign. And we see more and more clearly that on our own we cannot foster justice and peace unless the light of a God who shows us his Face is revealed to us, a God who appears to us in the manger of Bethlehem, who appears to us on the Cross.
Who then are the “Magi” of today, and what point has their “journey” and our “journey” reached? Dear brothers and sisters, let us return to that special moment of grace, the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council on 8 December 1965, when the Council Fathers addressed certain “Messages” to all humanity.
The first was addressed “To Rulers” and the second, “To Men of Thought and Science”. These are two categories of people who, in a certain way, we can see portrayed in the evangelical figures of the Magi.
I would then like to add a third category, to which the Council did not address a message but which was very present in its attention in the conciliar Decree Nostra Aetate. I am referring to the spiritual leaders of the great non-Christian religions. Two thousand years later, we can thus recognize in the figures of the Magi a sort of prefiguration of these three constitutive dimensions of modern humanism: the political, scientific and religious dimensions.
The Epiphany shows them to us in a state of “pilgrimage”, that is, in a movement of seeking, often somewhat confused, whose point of arrival, in short, is Christ, even if the star is sometimes hidden.
At the same time, the Epiphany shows to us God who in turn is on pilgrimage, a pilgrimage to man. There is not only the pilgrimage of man towards God; God himself has set out towards us: who is Jesus, in fact, if not God who has, so to speak, come out of himself to meet humanity? It was out of love that he made himself history in our history; out of love that he came to bring us the seed of new life (cf. Jn 3: 3-6) and sow it in the furrows of our earth so that it might sprout, flower and bear fruit.
Today, I would like to make my own those Messages of the Council which have lost nothing of their timeliness. For instance, one reads in the Message addressed to Rulers: “Your task is to be in the world the promoters of order and peace among men. But never forget this: It is God, the living and true God, who is the Father of men. And it is Christ, his eternal Son, who came to make this known to us and to teach us that we are all brothers. He it is who is the great artisan of order and peace on earth, for he it is who guides human history and who alone can incline hearts to renounce those evil passions which beget war and misfortune”.
How can we fail to recognize in these words of the Council Fathers the luminous trail of a journey which alone can transform the history of the nations and the world?
And further, in the “Message to Men of Thought and Science” we read: “Continue your search without tiring and without ever despairing of the truth”, and this, in fact, is the great danger: losing interest in the truth and seeking only action, efficiency and pragmatism! “Recall the words of one of your great friends, St Augustine: “Let us seek with the desire to find, and find with the desire to seek still more’. Happy are those who, while possessing the truth, search more earnestly for it in order to renew it, deepen it and transmit it to others. Happy also are those who, not having found it, are working toward it with a sincere heart. May they seek the light of tomorrow with the light of today until they reach the fullness of light”.
This was said in these two Council Messages. Today, it is more necessary than ever to flank the leaders of nations and researchers and scientists with the leaders of the great non-Christian religious traditions, inviting them to face one another with the light of Christ, who came not to abolish but to bring to fulfilment what God’s hand has written in the religious history of civilization, especially in the “great souls” who helped to build up humanity with their wisdom and example of virtue.
Christ is light, and light cannot darken but can only illuminate, brighten, reveal. No one, therefore, should be afraid of Christ and his message! And if, down through history, Christians as limited people and sinners have sometimes betrayed him by their behaviour, this makes it even clearer that the light is Christ and that the Church reflects it only by remaining united to him.
“We have seen his star in the East, and have come to adore the Lord” (Gospel acclamation, cf. Mt 2: 2).
What amazes us each time when we listen to these words of the Magi is that they prostrated themselves before a simple baby in his mother’s arms, not in the setting of a royal palace but, on the contrary, in the poverty of a stable in Bethlehem (cf. Mt 2: 11).
How was this possible? What convinced the Magi that the Child was “the King of the Jews” and the King of the peoples? There is no doubt that they were persuaded by the sign of the star that they had seen “in its rising” and which had come to rest precisely over the place where the Child was found (cf. Mt 2: 9). But even the star would not have sufficed had the Magi not been people inwardly open to the truth.
In comparison with King Herod, beset with his interests of power and riches, the Magi were directed toward the goal of their quest and when they found it, although they were cultured men, they behaved like the shepherds of Bethlehem: they recognized the sign and adored the Child, offering him the precious and symbolic gifts that they had brought with them.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us too pause in spirit to contemplate the image of the adoration of the Magi. It contains a demanding and ever timely message. It is demanding and ever timely, first of all for the Church, which, reflected in Mary, is called to show to mankind Jesus, nothing but Jesus. Indeed, he is the All and the Church exists solely to remain united to him and to make him known to the world. May the Mother of the Incarnate Word help us to be docile disciples of her Son, the Light of the nations!
The example of the Magi of that time is also an invitation to the Magi of today to open their minds and hearts to Christ and to offer him the gifts of their research. I would like to repeat to them, and to all the people of our time: do not be afraid of Christ’s light! His light is the splendour of the truth. Let yourselves be enlightened by him, all peoples of the earth; let yourselves be enveloped by his love and you will find the way of peace. So may it be.
Pope Benedict XVI
Homily, January 6, 2008
Today, we are celebrating Christ, Light of the world, and his manifestation to the peoples. On Christmas Day the message of the liturgy rings out in these words: “Hodie descendit lux magna super terram – Today, a great light descends upon earth” (Roman Missal).
In Bethlehem this “great light” appeared to a handful of people, a tiny “remnant of Israel”: the Virgin Mary, her husband Joseph and a few shepherds. It was a humble light, as is the style of the true God; a little flame kindled in the night: a fragile newborn infant wailing in the silence of the world… but this hidden, unknown birth was accompanied by the hymns of praise of the heavenly hosts singing of glory and peace (cf. Lk 2: 13-14).
So it was that although the appearance of this light on earth was modest, it was powerfully projected in the heavens: the birth of the King of the Jews had been announced by the rising of a star, visible from afar. This was attested to by some “wise men” who had come to Jerusalem from the East shortly after Jesus’ birth, in the time of King Herod (cf. Mt 2: 1-2).
Once again heaven and earth, the cosmos and history, call to each other and respond. The ancient prophecies find confirmation in the language of the stars. “A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (Nm 24: 17), announced Balaam, the pagan seer, when he was summoned to curse the People of Israel, whom he instead blessed because, as God had revealed to him, “they are blessed” (Nm 22: 12).
In his Commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, Cromatius of Aquileia establishes a connection between Balaam and the Magi: “He prophesied that Christ would come; they saw him with the eyes of faith”. And he adds an important observation: “The star was seen by everyone but not everyone understood its meaning. Likewise, our Lord and Saviour was born for everyone, but not everyone has welcomed him” (4: 1-2). Here, the meaning of the symbol of light applied to Christ’s birth appears: it expresses God’s special blessing on Abraham’s descendents, destined to be extended to all the peoples of the earth.
The Gospel event which we commemorate on the Epiphany – the Magi’s visit to the Child Jesus in Bethlehem – thus refers us back to the origins of the history of God’s People, that is, to Abraham’s call.
We are in chapter 12 of the Book of Genesis. The first 11 chapters are like great frescos that answer some of humanity’s fundamental questions: what is the origin of the universe and of the human race? Where does evil come from? Why are there different languages and civilizations?
Among the narratives with which the Bible begins, there appears a first “covenant” which God made with Noah after the flood. It was a universal covenant concerning the whole of humanity: the new pact with Noah’s family is at the same time a pact with “all flesh”.
Then, before Abraham’s call, there is another great fresco which is very important for understanding the meaning of Epiphany: that of the Tower of Babel. The sacred text says that in the beginning, “the whole earth had one language and few words” (Gn 11: 1). Then men said: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gn 11: 4).
The consequence of this sin of pride, similar to that of Adam and Eve, was the confusion of languages and the dispersion of humanity over all the earth (cf. Gn 11: 7-8). This means “Babel” and was a sort of curse, similar to being banished from the earthly paradise.
At this point, with Abraham’s call, the story of the blessing begins: it is the beginning of God’s great plan to make humanity one family through the covenant with a new people, chosen by him to be a blessing among all the peoples (cf. Gn 12: 1-3).
This divine plan is still being implemented; it culminated in the mystery of Christ. It was then that the “last times” began, in the sense that the plan was fully revealed and brought about in Christ but needs to be accepted by human history, which always remains a history of fidelity on God’s part, but unfortunately also of infidelity on the part of us human beings.
The Church herself, the depository of the blessing, is holy and made up of sinners, marked by tension between the “already” and the “not yet”. In the fullness of time Jesus Christ came to bring the covenant to completion: he himself, true God and true man, is the Sacrament of God’s fidelity to his plan of salvation for all humanity, for all of us.
The arrival in Bethlehem of the Magi from the East to adore the newborn Messiah is a sign of the manifestation of the universal King to the peoples and to all who seek the truth. It is the beginning of a movement opposed to that of Babel: from confusion to comprehension, from dispersion to reconciliation.
Thus, we discern a link between Epiphany and Pentecost: if the Nativity of Christ, who is the Head, is also the Nativity of the Church, his Body, we can see the Magi as the peoples who join the remnant of Israel, foretelling the great sign of the “polyglot Church” that the Holy Spirit carried out 50 days after Easter.
The faithful and tenacious love of God which is never lacking in his covenant from generation to generation is the “mystery” of which St Paul speaks in his Letters and in the passage from the Letter to the Ephesians which has just been proclaimed: the Apostle says that this mystery “was made known to me by revelation” (Eph 3: 3).
This “mystery” of God’s fidelity constitutes the hope of history. It is of course opposed by the impulses of division and tyranny that wound humanity due to sin and conflicts of selfishness. The Church in history is at the service of this “mystery” of blessing for all humanity.
The Church fully carries out her mission in this mystery of God’s fidelity only when she reflects the light of Christ the Lord within herself and so helps the peoples of the world on their way to peace and authentic progress.
Indeed, God’s Word revealed through the Prophet Isaiah still continues to apply: “darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you” (Is 60: 2). What the prophet proclaimed in Jerusalem was to be fulfilled in Christ’s Church: “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Is 60: 3).
With Jesus Christ, Abraham’s blessing was extended to all peoples, to the universal Church as the new Israel which welcomes within her the whole of humanity. Yet, what the prophet said is also true today in many senses: “thick darkness [covers] the peoples” and our history.
Indeed, it cannot be said that “globalization” is synonymous with “world order” – it is quite the opposite. Conflicts for economic supremacy and hoarding resources of energy, water and raw materials hinder the work of all who are striving at every level to build a just and supportive world.
There is a need for greater hope, which will make it possible to prefer the common good of all to the luxury of the few and the poverty of the many. “This great hope can only be God… not any god, but the God who has a human face” (Spe Salvi, n. 31): the God who showed himself in the Child of Bethlehem and the Crucified and Risen One.
If there is great hope, it is possible to persevere in sobriety. If true hope is lacking, happiness is sought in drunkenness, in the superfluous, in excesses, and we ruin ourselves and the world. It is then that moderation is not only an ascetic rule but also a path of salvation for humanity.
It is already obvious that only by adopting a sober lifestyle, accompanied by a serious effort for a fair distribution of riches, will it be possible to establish an order of just and sustainable development. For this reason we need people who nourish great hope and thus have great courage: the courage of the Magi, who made a long journey following a star and were able to kneel before a Child and offer him their precious gifts.
We all need this courage, anchored to firm hope. May Mary obtain it for us, accompanying us on our earthly pilgrimage with her maternal protection. Amen!
Pope Benedict XVI
Homily, January 6, 2009
Epiphany, the “manifestation” of Our Lord Jesus Christ, is a many-facetted mystery. The Latin tradition identifies it with the visit of the Magi to the Infant Jesus in Bethlehem and thus interprets it above all as a revelation of the Messiah of Israel to the Gentiles.
The Eastern tradition on the other hand gives priority to the moment of Jesus’ Baptism in the River Jordan when he manifested himself as the Only-Begotten Son of the heavenly Father, consecrated by the Holy Spirit. John’s Gospel, however, also invites us to consider as an “epiphany” the Wedding at Cana, during which, by changing the water into wine, Jesus “manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (Jn 2: 11).
And what should we say, dear brothers and sisters, especially we priests of the New Covenant who are every day witnesses and ministers of the “epiphany” of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist? The Church celebrates all the mysteries of the Lord in this most holy and most humble Sacrament in which he both reveals and conceals his glory. “Adoro te devote, latens Deitas” in adoration, thus we pray along with St Thomas Aquinas.
In this year 2009, which has been dedicated in a special way to astronomy to mark the fourth centenary of Galileo Galilei’s first observations with the telescope, we cannot fail to pay particular attention to the symbol of the star that is so important in the Gospel account of the Magi (cf. Mt 2: 1-12). In all likelihood the Wise Men were astronomers.
From their observation point, situated in the East compared to Palestine, perhaps in Mesopotamia, they had noticed the appearance of a new star and had interpreted this celestial phenomenon as the announcement of the birth of a king, specifically that in accordance with the Sacred Scriptures of the King of the Jews (cf. Nm 24: 17). The Fathers of the Church also saw this unique episode recounted by St Matthew as a sort of cosmic “revolution” caused by the Son of God’s entry into the world.
For example, St John Chrysostom writes: “The star, when it stood over the young Child, stayed its course again: which thing itself was of a greater power than belongs to a star, now to hide itself, now to appear, and having appeared to stand still” (Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 7, 3). St Gregory of Nazianzen states that the birth of Christ gave the stars new orbits (cf. Dogmatic Poems, v, 53-64: PG 37, 428-429).
This is clearly to be understood in a symbolic and theological sense. In effect, while pagan theology divinized the elements and forces of the cosmos, the Christian faith, in bringing the biblical Revelation to fulfilment, contemplates only one God, Creator and Lord of the whole universe.
The divine and universal law of creation is divine love, incarnate in Christ. However, this should not be understood in a poetic but in a real sense. Moreover, this is what Dante himself meant when, in the sublime verse that concludes the Paradiso and the entire Divina Commedia, he describes God as “the Love which moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradiso, xxxiii, 145).
This means that the stars, planets and the whole universe are not governed by a blind force, they do not obey the dynamics of matter alone. Therefore, it is not the cosmic elements that should be divinized. Indeed, on the contrary, within everything and at the same time above everything there is a personal will, the Spirit of God, who in Christ has revealed himself as Love (cf. Encyclical Spe Salvi, 5).
If this is the case, then as St Paul wrote to the Colossians people are not slaves of the “elemental spirits of the universe” (cf. Col 2: 8) but are free, that is, capable of relating to the creative freedom of God. God is at the origin of all things and governs all things, not as a cold and anonymous engine but rather as Father, Husband, Friend, Brother and as the Logos, “Word-Reason” who was united with our mortal flesh once and for all and fully shared our condition, showing the superabundant power of his grace.
Thus there is a special concept of the cosmos in Christianity which found its loftiest expression in medieval philosophy and theology. In our day too, it shows interesting signs of a new flourishing, thanks to the enthusiasm and faith of many scientists who following in Galileo’s footsteps renounce neither reason nor faith; instead they develop both in their reciprocal fruitfulness.
Christian thought compares the cosmos to a “book” the same Galileo said this as well considering it as the work of an Author who expresses himself in the “symphony” of the Creation. In this symphony is found, at a certain point, what might be called in musical terminology a “solo”, a theme given to a single instrument or voice; and it is so important that the significance of the entire work depends on it.
This “solo” is Jesus, who is accompanied by a royal sign: the appearance of a new star in the firmament. Jesus is compared by ancient Christian writers to a new sun. According to current astrophysical knowledge, we should compare it with a star that is even more central, not only for the solar system but also for the entire known universe.
Within this mysterious design simultaneously physical and metaphysical, which led to the appearance of the human being as the crowning of Creation’s elements Jesus came into the world: “born of woman” (Gal 4: 4), as St Paul writes. The Son of man himself epitomizes the earth and Heaven, the Creation and the Creator, the flesh and the Spirit. He is the centre of the cosmos and of history, for in him the Author and his work are united without being confused with each other.
In the earthly Jesus the culmination of Creation and of history is found but in the Risen Christ this is surpassed: the passage through death to eternal life anticipates the point of the “recapitulation” of all things in Christ (cf. Eph 1: 10). Indeed “all things”, the Apostle wrote “were created through him and for him (Col 1: 16). And it is precisely with the resurrection of the dead that he became “pre-eminent in all things” (Col 1: 18).
Jesus himself affirms this, appearing to his disciples after the Resurrection: “all authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mt 28: 18). This awareness supports the way of the Church, Body of Christ, on the paths of history.
There is no shadow, however dark, that can obscure Christ’s light. This is why believers in Christ never lack hope, even today, in the face of the great social and financial crisis that is tormenting humanity, in the face of the destructive hatred and violence that have not ceased to stain many of the earth’s regions with blood, in the face of the selfishness and pretension of the human being in establishing himself as his own God, which sometimes leads to dangerous distortions of the divine plan concerning life and the dignity of the human being, the family and the harmony of the Creation.
Our efforts to free human life and the world from the forms of poison and contamination that could destroy the present and the future retain their value and meaning as I noted in the Encyclical Spe Salvi mentioned above even if we apparently fail or seem powerless when hostile forces appear to gain the upper hand, because “it is the great hope based upon God’s promises that gives us courage and directs our action in good times and bad” (n. 35).
Christ’s universal lordship is exercised in a special way on the Church. We read in the Letter to the Ephesians that God “has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph 1: 22-23).
Pope Benedict XVI
Homily, January 6, 2010
The Epiphany is the manifestation of the Lord and as a reflection, it is the manifestation of the Church, since the Body is inseparable from the Head. Today’s First Reading, from “Third Isaiah”, gives us the precise perspective for understanding the reality of the Church as a mystery of reflected light: “Arise, shine” the Prophet says, addressing Jerusalem, “for your light has come, / and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Is 60: 1).
The Church is humanity illuminated, “baptized” in the glory of God, that is in his love, in his beauty, in his dignity. The Church knows that her own humanity, with its limitations and wretchedness, serve especially to highlight the work of the Holy Spirit. She can boast of nothing, save in her Lord. It is not from her that light comes; the glory is not hers. But this is precisely her joy, which no one can take from her: to be a “sign and instrument” of the One who is “lumen gentium”, the light of humanity (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, n. 1).
Dear friends, in this Pauline Year, the Feast of the Epiphany invites the Church, and in her, every community and every individual member of the faithful, to imitate, as did the Apostle to the Gentiles, the service that the star rendered to the Magi from the East, guiding them to Jesus (cf. St Leo the Great, Disc. 3 for Epiphany, 5: PL 54, 244).
What was Paul’s life after his conversion other than a “race” to bring the light of Christ to the peoples, and vice versa, to lead the peoples to Christ? God’s grace made Paul a “star” for the Gentiles. His ministry is an example and an incentive for the Church to rediscover herself as essentially missionary and to renew the commitment to proclaim the Gospel, especially to those who do not yet know it. Yet, in looking at St Paul, we cannot forget that his preaching was completely nourished by the Sacred Scriptures.
Therefore it should be powerfully reaffirmed in the perspective of the recent Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that the Church and individual Christians can be a light that leads to Christ only if they are diligently and intimately nourished by the Word of God. It is the Word, certainly not us, that illumines, purifies and converts. We are merely servants of the Word of life. This is how Paul saw himself and his ministry: as a service to the Gospel. “I do it all for the sake of the Gospel”, he wrote (1 Cor 9: 23).
The Church, every ecclesial community, every Bishop and every priest ought also to be able to say this: “I do it all for the sake of the Gospel”. Dear brothers and sisters, pray for us, Pastors of the Church, that by assimilating the Word of God daily we may pass it on faithfully to our brethren. Yet we too pray for you, all the faithful, because every Christian is called through Baptism and Confirmation to proclaim Christ, the light of the world, in word and in the witness of his life. May the Virgin Mary, Star of Evangelization, help us to bring this mission to completion together, and may St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, intercede for us from Heaven. Amen.
Today, the Solemnity of the Epiphany, the great light that radiates from the Cave of Bethlehem inundates all of mankind through the Magi from the East. The first Reading, taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah; and the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, which we just heard, juxtapose the promise and its fulfilment in that particular tension noted when reading passages from the Old and New Testaments in succession.
Following the humiliations undergone by the people of Israel at the hands of worldly powers, the splendid vision of the Prophet Isaiah appears before us. He sees the moment when the great light of God that seems powerless and incapable of protecting his people will rise to shine on all the earth so that the kings of nations bow before him, coming from the ends of the earth to deposit their most precious treasures at his feet. And the heart of the people will tremble with joy.
Compared to this vision, the one the Evangelist Matthew presents to us appears poor and humble: it seems impossible for us to recognize in it the fulfilment of the Prophet Isaiah’s words. In fact, those who arrived in Bethlehem were not the powerful and the kings of the earth, but the Magi, unknown men, perhaps regarded with suspicion, and in any case, not deemed worthy of special attention. The inhabitants of Jerusalem learned of the event but did not think it worth bothering about.
Not even in Bethlehem did anyone seem to take any notice of the birth of this Baby, called King of the Jews by the Magi, nor about these men who had come from the East to visit him. Soon after, in fact, when Herod made it clear that he was effectively the one in power forcing the Holy Family to flee to Egypt and offering proof of his cruelty by the massacre of the innocents (cf. Mt 2: 13-18) the episode of the Magi seemed to have been disregarded and forgotten.
It is therefore understandable that the hearts and souls of believers throughout the centuries have been attracted more by the vision of the Prophet than by the sober narration of the evangelist, as the Nativity scenes also show where there are camels, dromedaries and powerful kings of the world kneeling before the Child, laying down their gifts to him in precious caskets. But we must pay more attention to what the two texts communicate to us.
In fact, what did Isaiah see with his prophetic vision? In one single moment, he glimpsed a reality that was destined to mark all history. But even the event that Matthew narrates is not a brief and negligible episode that closes with the Magi hastening back to their own lands. On the contrary, it is the beginning. Those figures who came from the East were not the last but the first of a great procession of those who, throughout the epochs of history, are able to recognize the message of the Star, who know how to walk on the paths indicated by Sacred Scripture.
Thus they also know how to find the One who seems weak and fragile but instead has the power to grant the greatest and most profound joy to the heart of man. In him, indeed, is made manifest the stupendous reality that God knows us and is close to us, that his greatness and power are not expressed according to the world’s logic, but to the logic of a helpless baby whose strength is only that of the love which he entrusts to us. In the journey of history, there are always people who are enlightened by the light of the Star, who find the way and reach him. They all live, each in his or her own way, the experience of the Magi.
They had brought gold, incense and myrrh. These are certainly not gifts that correspond to basic, daily needs. At that moment, the Holy Family was far more in need of something different from incense or myrrh, and not even the gold could have been of immediate use to them. But these gifts have a profound significance: they are an act of justice. In fact, according to the mentality prevailing then in the Orient, they represent the recognition of a person as God and King, that is, an act of submission. They were meant to say that from that moment, the donors belonged to the sovereign and they recognize his authority.
The consequence is immediate. The Magi could no longer follow the road they came on, they could no longer return to Herod, they could no longer be allied with that powerful and cruel sovereign. They had always been led along the path of the Child, making them ignore the great and the powerful of the world, and taking them to him who awaits us among the poor, the road of love which alone can transform the world.
Therefore, not only did the Magi set out on their journey, but their deed started something new they traced a new road, and a new light has come down on earth which has never faded. The Prophet’s vision is fulfilled: that light could no longer be ignored by the world. People would go towards that Child and would be illumined by that joy that only he can give.
The light of Bethlehem continues to shine throughout the world. To those who have welcomed this light, St Augustine said: “Even we, recognizing Christ our King and Priest who died for us, have honoured him as if we had offered him gold, incense and myrrh. But what remains is for us to bear witness to him by taking a different road from that on which we came” (Sermo 202. In Epiphania Domini, 3,4).
Thus if we read together the promise of the Prophet Isaiah and its fulfilment in the Gospel of Matthew in the great context of all history, it is evident that what we have been told which we seek to reproduce in our Nativity scenes is neither a dream nor a vain play on sensations and emotions, devoid of vigour and reality, but is the Truth that irradiates in the world, although Herod always seems stronger, and that Infant seems to be found among people of no importance or who are even downtrodden. But in that Baby is expressed the power of God, who brings together all people through the ages, because under his lordship, they may follow the course of love which transfigures the world.
Nevertheless, even if the few in Bethlehem have become many, believers in Jesus Christ always seem to be few. Many have seen the star, but only a few have understood its message. Scripture scholars in the time of Jesus knew the word of God perfectly well. They were able to say without hesitation what could be found in Scripture about the place where the Messiah would be born, but as St Augustine said: “They were like milestones along the road though they could give information to travellers along the way, they remained inert and immobile” (Sermo 199. In Epiphania Domini, 1,2).
Therefore, we can ask ourselves: what is the reason why some men see and find, while others do not? What opens the eyes and the heart? What is lacking in those who remain indifferent, in those who point out the road but do not move? We can answer: too much self-assurance, the claim to knowing reality, the presumption of having formulated a definitive judgment on everything closes them and makes their hearts insensitive to the newness of God.
They are certain of the idea that they have formed of the world and no longer let themselves be involved in the intimacy of an adventure with a God who wants to meet them. They place their confidence in themselves rather than in him, and they do not think it possible that God could be so great as to make himself small so as to come really close to us.
Lastly, what they lack is authentic humility, which is able to submit to what is greater, but also authentic courage, which leads to belief in what is truly great even if it is manifested in a helpless Baby. They lack the evangelical capacity to be children at heart, to feel wonder, and to emerge from themselves in order to follow the path indicated by the star, the path of God.
God has the power to open our eyes and to save us. Let us therefore ask him to give us a heart that is wise and innocent, that allows us to see the Star of his mercy, to proceed along his way, in order to find him and be flooded with the great light and true joy that he brought to this world. Amen.
Pope Benedict XVI
Homily, January 6, 2011
On the Solemnity of Epiphany the Church continues to contemplate and to celebrate the mystery of the birth of Jesus the Saviour. In particular, this day stresses the universal destination and significance of this birth.
By becoming man in Mary’s womb, the Son of God did not only come 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 on the Magi and their journey in search of the Messiah (cf. Mt 2:1-12) that the Church invites us to meditate and pray today.
We heard in the Gospel that having arrived in Jerusalem from the East they asked: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him” (v. 2). What kind of people were they and what kind of star was it? They were probably sages who scrutinized the heavens, but not in order to try to “read” the future in the stars, possibly to profit by so doing. Rather, they were men “in search” of something more, in search of the true light that could point out the path to take in life. They were people certain that something we might describe as the “signature” of God exists in creation, a signature that man can and must endeavour to discover and decipher.
Perhaps the way to become better acquainted with these Magi and to understand their desire to let themselves be guided by God’s signs is to pause to consider what they find on their journey, in the great city of Jerusalem.
First of all they met King Herod. He was certainly interested in the Child of which the Magi spoke; not in order to worship him, as he wished to make them believe by lying, but rather to kill him. Herod was a powerful man who saw others solely as rivals to combat. Basically, on reflection, God also seemed a rival to him, a particularly dangerous rival who would like to deprive men of their vital space, their autonomy, their power; a rival who points out the way to take in life and thus prevents one from doing what one likes.
Herod listened to the interpretations of the Prophet Micah’s words, made by his experts in Sacred Scripture, but his only thought was of the throne. So God himself had to be clouded over and people had to be reduced to mere pawns to move on the great chessboard of power. Herod is a figure we dislike, whom we instinctively judge negatively because of his brutality.
Yet we should ask ourselves: is there perhaps something of Herod also in us? Might we too sometimes see God as a sort of rival? Might we too be blind to his signs and deaf to his words because we think he is setting limits on our life and does not allow us to dispose of our existence as we please?
Dear Brothers and Sisters, when we see God in this way we end by feeling dissatisfied and discontent because we are not letting ourselves be guided by the One who is the foundation of all things.
We must rid our minds and hearts of the idea of rivalry, of the idea that making room for God is a constraint on us. We must open ourselves to the certainty that God is almighty love that takes nothing away, that does not threaten; on the contrary he is the Only One who can give us the possibility of living to the full, of experiencing true joy.
The Magi then meet the scholars, the theologians, the experts who know everything about the Sacred Scriptures, who are familiar with the possible interpretations, who can quote every passage of it since they know it by heart and are therefore of valuable assistance to those who choose to walk on God’s path.
However, St Augustine says, they like being guides to others, they point out the way; but they themselves do not travel, they stand stock-still. For them the Scriptures become a sort of atlas to be perused with curiosity, a collection of words and concepts for study and for learned discussion.
However, once again we can ask ourselves: is not there a temptation within us to consider the Sacred Scriptures, this very rich and vital treasure for the faith of the Church, as an object of study and of specialists’ discussions rather than as the Book that shows us the way to attain life? I think, as I suggested in the Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, that profound willingness must ceaselessly be born within them to see the words of the Bible interpreted in the Church’s living Tradition (n. 18), as the truth that tells us what man is and how he can fulfil himself totally, the truth that is the way to take every day, with others, if we wish to build our lives on rock and not on sand.
And so we come to the star. What kind of star was the star the Magi saw and followed? This question has been the subject of discussion among astronomers down the centuries. Kepler, for example, claimed that it was “new” or “super-new”, one of those stars that usually radiates a weak light but can suddenly and violently explode, producing an exceptionally bright blaze.
These are of course interesting things but do not guide us to what is essential for understanding that star. We must return to the fact that those men were seeking traces of God; they were seeking to read his “signature” in creation; they knew that “the heavens are telling of the glory of God” (Psalm 19 :2); they were certain, that is, that God can be perceived in creation.
But, as sages, the Magi also knew that it is not with any kind of telescope but rather with the profound eyes of reason in search of the ultimate meaning of reality and with the desire for God, motivated by faith, that it is possible to meet him, indeed, becomes possible for God to come close to us.
The universe is not the result of chance, as some would like to make us believe. In contemplating it, we are asked to interpret in it something profound; the wisdom of the Creator, the inexhaustible creativity of God, his infinite love for us.
We must not let our minds be limited by theories that always go only so far and that — at a close look — are far from competing with faith but do not succeed in explaining the ultimate meaning of reality. We cannot but perceive in the beauty of the world, its mystery, its greatness and its rationality, the eternal rationality; nor can we dispense with its guidance to the one God, Creator of Heaven and of earth.
If we acquire this perception we shall see that the One who created the world and the One who was born in a grotto in Bethlehem and who continues to dwell among us in the Eucharist, are the same living God who calls us, who loves us and who wants to lead us to eternal life.
Herod, the Scriptural exegetes, the star: but let us follow the journey of the Magi to Jerusalem. Above the great city the star disappears, it is no longer seen. What does this mean? In this case too, we must interpret the sign in its depth. For those men it was logical to seek the new king in the royal palace, where the wise court advisors were to be found.
Yet, probably to their amazement, they were obliged to note that this newborn Child was not found in the places of power and culture, even though in those places they were offered precious information about him.
On the other hand they realized that power, even the power of knowledge, sometimes blocks the way to the encounter with this Child. The star then guided them to Bethlehem, a little town; it led them among the poor and the humble to find the King of the world.
God’s criteria differ from human criteria. God does not manifest himself 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 too things are not so different from what they were for the Magi. If we were to be asked our opinion on how God was to save the world, we might answer that he would have to manifest all his power to give the world a fairer economic system in which each person could have everything he wanted. Indeed, this would be a sort of violence to man because it would deprive him of the fundamental elements that characterize him. In fact neither our freedom nor our love would be called into question. God’s power is revealed in quite a different way: in Bethlehem, where we encounter the apparent powerlessness of his love. And it is there that we must go and there that we find God’s star.
Thus, a final important element of the event of the Magi appears to us very clearly: 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.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us allow ourselves to be guided by the star that is the word of God, 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.
Pope Benedict XVI
Homily, January 6, 2012
The Epiphany is a feast of light. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Is 60:1). With these words of the prophet Isaiah, the Church describes the content of the feast. He who is the true light, and by whom we too are made to be light, has indeed come into the world. He gives us the power to become children of God (cf. Jn 1:9,12). The journey of the wise men from the East is, for the liturgy, just the beginning of a great procession that continues throughout history.
With the Magi, humanity’s pilgrimage to Jesus Christ begins – to the God who was born in a stable, who died on the Cross and who, having risen from the dead, remains with us always, until the consummation of the world (cf. Mt 28:20). The Church reads this account from Matthew’s Gospel alongside the vision of the prophet Isaiah that we heard in the first reading: the journey of these men is just the beginning. Before them came the shepherds – simple souls, who dwelt closer to the God who became a child, and could more easily “go over” to him (Lk 2:15) and recognize him as Lord.
But now the wise of this world are also coming. Great and small, kings and slaves, men of all cultures and all peoples are coming. The men from the East are the first, followed by many more throughout the centuries. After the great vision of Isaiah, the reading from the Letter to the Ephesians expresses the same idea in sober and simple terms: the Gentiles share the same heritage (cf. Eph 3:6). Psalm 2 puts it like this: “I shall bequeath you the nations, put the ends of the earth in your possession” (v. 8).
The wise men from the East lead the way. They open up the path of the Gentiles to Christ. During this holy Mass, I will ordain two priests to the episcopate, I will consecrate them as shepherds of God’s people. According to the words of Jesus, part of a shepherd’s task is to go ahead of the flock (cf. Jn 10:4). So, allowing for all the differences in vocation and mission, we may well look to these figures, the first Gentiles to find the pathway to Christ, for indications concerning the task of bishops. What kind of people were they?
The experts tell us that they belonged to the great astronomical tradition that had developed in Mesopotamia over the centuries and continued to flourish. But this information of itself is not enough. No doubt there were many astronomers in ancient Babylon, but only these few set off to follow the star that they recognized as the star of the promise, pointing them along the path towards the true King and Saviour. They were, as we might say, men of science, but not simply in the sense that they were searching for a wide range of knowledge: they wanted something more. They wanted to understand what being human is all about.
They had doubtless heard of the prophecy of the Gentile prophet Balaam: “A star shall come forth out of Jacob and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (Num 24:17). They explored this promise. They were men with restless hearts, not satisfied with the superficial and the ordinary. They were men in search of the promise, in search of God. And they were watchful men, capable of reading God’s signs, his soft and penetrating language. But they were also courageous, yet humble: we can imagine them having to endure a certain amount of mockery for setting off to find the King of the Jews, at the cost of so much effort.
For them it mattered little what this or that person, what even influential and clever people thought and said about them. For them it was a question of truth itself, not human opinion. Hence they took upon themselves the sacrifices and the effort of a long and uncertain journey. Their humble courage was what enabled them to bend down before the child of poor people and to recognize in him the promised King, the one they had set out, on both their outward and their inward journey, to seek and to know.
Dear friends, how can we fail to recognize in all this certain essential elements of episcopal ministry? The bishop too must be a man of restless heart, not satisfied with the ordinary things of this world, but inwardly driven by his heart’s unrest to draw ever closer to God, to seek his face, to recognize him more and more, to be able to love him more and more.
The bishop too must be a man of watchful heart, who recognizes the gentle language of God and understands how to distinguish truth from mere appearance. The bishop too must be filled with the courage of humility, not asking what prevailing opinion says about him, but following the criterion of God’s truth and taking his stand accordingly – “opportune – importune”. He must be able to go ahead and mark out the path.
He must go ahead, in the footsteps of him who went ahead of us all because he is the true shepherd, the true star of the promise: Jesus Christ. And he must have the humility to bend down before the God who made himself so tangible and so simple that he contradicts our foolish pride in its reluctance to see God so close and so small. He must devote his life to adoration of the incarnate Son of God, which constantly points him towards the path.
The liturgy of episcopal ordination interprets the essential features of this ministry in eight questions addressed to the candidates, each beginning with the word “Vultis? – Do you want?” These questions direct the will and mark out the path to be followed. Here I shall briefly cite just a few of the most important words of this presentation, where we find explicit mention of the elements we have just considered in connection with the wise men of today’s feast. The bishops’ task is praedicare Evangelium Christi, it is custodire et dirigere, it is pauperibus se misericordes praebere, it is indesinenter orare.
Preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, going ahead and leading, guarding the sacred heritage of our faith, showing mercy and charity to the needy and the poor, thus mirroring God’s merciful love for us, and finally, praying without ceasing: these are the fundamental features of the episcopal ministry. Praying without ceasing means: never losing contact with God, letting ourselves be constantly touched by him in the depths of our hearts and, in this way, being penetrated by his light. Only someone who actually knows God can lead others to God. Only someone who leads people to God leads them along the path of life.
The restless heart of which we spoke earlier, echoing Saint Augustine, is the heart that is ultimately satisfied with nothing less than God, and in this way becomes a loving heart. Our heart is restless for God and remains so, even if every effort is made today, by means of most effective anaesthetizing methods, to deliver people from this unrest. But not only are we restless for God: God’s heart is restless for us. God is waiting for us. He is looking for us. He knows no rest either, until he finds us. God’s heart is restless, and that is why he set out on the path towards us – to Bethlehem, to Calvary, from Jerusalem to Galilee and on to the very ends of the earth.
God is restless for us, he looks out for people willing to “catch” his unrest, his passion for us, people who carry within them the searching of their own hearts and at the same time open themselves to be touched by God’s search for us. Dear friends, this was the task of the Apostles: to receive God’s unrest for man and then to bring God himself to man. And this is your task as successors of the Apostles: let yourselves be touched by God’s unrest, so that God’s longing for man may be fulfilled.
The wise men followed the star. Through the language of creation, they discovered the God of history. To be sure – the language of creation alone is not enough. Only God’s word, which we encounter in sacred Scripture, was able to mark out their path definitively. Creation and Scripture, reason and faith, must come together, so as to lead us forward to the living God.
There has been much discussion over what kind of star it was that the wise men were following. Some suggest a planetary constellation, or a supernova, that is to say one of those stars that is initially quite weak, in which an inner explosion releases a brilliant light for a certain time, or a comet, etc. This debate we may leave to the experts. The great star, the true supernova that leads us on, is Christ himself. He is as it were the explosion of God’s love, which causes the great white light of his heart to shine upon the world. And we may add: the wise men from the East, who feature in today’s Gospel, like all the saints, have themselves gradually become constellations of God that mark out the path.
In all these people, being touched by God’s word has, as it were, released an explosion of light, through which God’s radiance shines upon our world and shows us the path. The saints are stars of God, by whom we let ourselves be led to him for whom our whole being longs.
Dear friends: you followed the star Jesus Christ when you said “yes” to the priesthood and to the episcopacy. And no doubt smaller stars have enlightened and helped you not to lose your way. In the litany of saints we call upon all these stars of God, that they may continue to shine upon you and show you the path. As you are ordained bishops, you too are called to be stars of God for men, leading them along the path towards the true light, towards Christ. So let us pray to all the saints at this hour, asking them that you may always live up to this mission you have received, to show God’s light to mankind.