Benedict XVI's Homily for Epiphany
"Many Have Seen the Star, but Few Have Understood Its Message"
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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 7, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of Benedict XVI's homily for the solemnity of the Epiphany, delivered Wednesday in St. Peter's Basilica.
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Dear Brothers and Sisters!
Today, solemnity of the Epiphany, the great light that shines from the cave of Bethlehem inundates all of humanity, through the Magi who have come from the East. The first reading, taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and the passage we have just heard from Matthew's Gospel, bring together the promise and its fulfillment in that particular tension that is produced when reading successively passages of the Old and New Testament.
Therein appears before us the splendid vision of the prophet Isaiah, who, after the humiliations suffered by the people of Israel on the part of the powers of this world, sees the moment in which the great light of God, seemingly powerless and incapable of protecting his people, rises over the whole earth, so that the kings of the nations bow before him. They come from all the ends of the earth and deposit at his feet their most precious treasures. And the heart of the people vibrates with joy.
In face of this vision, the one presented to us by the Evangelist Matthew seems poor and ragged: It seems impossible to us to recognize there the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah. In fact, those who arrive in Bethlehem are not the powerful ones and the kings of the earth, but rather a few Magi. They are unknown figures, perhaps regarded with suspicion, and in any case unworthy of special attention. The inhabitants of Jerusalem are informed about what happened, but do not consider it necessary to be bothered. Not even in Bethlehem does it seem that there is someone who is concerned about the birth of this Child, called King of the Jews by the Magi, or about these men who came from the East to visit him.
Shortly after, in fact, when King Herod made it clear who effectively held power, obliging the Holy Family to flee to Egypt and giving proof of his cruelty with the massacre of the Innocents (cf. Matthew 2:13-18), the episode of the Magi seems to have been erased and forgotten. Hence, it is understandable that the heart and soul of believers of all centuries was more attracted by the vision of the prophet than by the sober account of the evangelist, as is attested by how the visit is reflected in our nativity scenes, where the camels and dromedaries appear, and the powerful kings of this world, who kneel before the Child and deposit at his feet their gifts in valuable chests. However, it is best to pay greater attention to what the two texts communicate to us.
In reality, what did Isaiah see with his prophetic vision? In a single moment, he perceived a reality destined to mark all of history. But also, the event that Matthew recounts to us is not a brief dispensable episode, which ends with the hasty return of the Magi to their country. On the contrary, it is a beginning.
These figures from the East are not the last, but rather the first of the great procession of those who, through all the periods of history, know how to recognize the message of the star, know how to follow the ways indicated by sacred Scripture, and thus are able to encounter him who is apparently weak and fragile, but who instead is able to give the greatest and most profound joy to man's heart.
Manifested in him, in fact, is the wonderful reality that God knows us and is close to us; that his greatness and power are not expressed in the logic of the world, but in the logic of a defenseless child, whose strength is only that of love entrusted to us. In the course of history, there have always been persons illuminated by the light of the star, who find the way and reach him. All of them live, in their own way, the same experience of the Magi.
They brought gold, incense and myrrh. They certainly are not gifts that respond to basic and daily needs. At that moment, the Holy Family certainly had need of something other than incense and myrrh, nor could gold be of immediate use to them. However, these gifts have a profound meaning: They are an act of justice.
In fact, according to the mentality prevailing at that time in the East, they represented the recognition of a person as God and king. In other words, they were an act of submission. It meant that from that moment the donors belong to the sovereign and acknowledged his authority. The consequence that followed from it was immediate. The Magi could no longer continue on their way, could no longer return to Herod, could no longer be allied with that powerful and cruel sovereign. They were led forever to the way of the child, which will make them have nothing to do with the great and the powerful of this world and will lead them to him who awaits us among the poor, the way of love that on its own can transform the world.
Not only did the Magi embark on that path, but since then something new has begun, a new way has been marked out, a new light has come down to the world which has not gone out. The vision of the prophet is fulfilled. That light can no longer be ignored in the world. Men will move toward that child and will be illuminated by the joy that only he can give. The light of Bethlehem continues to shine in the whole world. St. Augustine reminds all those who receive it: "We also, recognizing in Christ our king and priest who died for us, honor him as if we had offered him gold, incense and myrrh. We only need to give witness to him by taking a different way from that which we have followed" (Sermon 202. "In Epiphania Domini," 3, 4).
Hence, if we read together the promise of the prophet Isaiah and its fulfillment in Matthew's Gospel in the great context of all of history, it seems evident that what we are told, and what we try to reproduce in the nativity scene, is not a dream or a vain game of sensations and emotions, deprived of vigor and reality, but rather the Truth that shines in the world, despite Herod always seeming to be the strongest and the Child seeming to be able to be relegated among those who are of no importance, or even disregarded. However, only in that Child is manifested the strength of God, which gathers men of all times, so that under his lordship they follow the way of love, which transfigures the world.
Although the few of Bethlehem have become many, believers in Jesus Christ always seem to be few. Many have seen the star, but few have understood its message. Scripture scholars of Jesus' time knew the word of God perfectly. They were able to say without any difficulty what was to be found in Scripture regarding the place in which the Messiah would be born, but, as St. Augustine says, "as the milestones (that indicate the way), they remained inert and immovable" (Sermo 199. In Epiphania Domini, 1, 2).
Hence, we can ask ourselves: What is the reason that some see and others do not? What is it that opens the eyes and heart? What is missing in those who remain indifferent, from those who indicate the way but do not move? We can answer: the excessive certainty in themselves, the pretension of knowing reality perfectly, the presumption of already having formulated a definitive judgment on things, thus making their hearts closed and insensitive to the novelty of God. They are certain of the idea they have of the world and do not let themselves be moved in their deepest being by the adventure of a God who wants to meet them. They place more confidence in themselves than in him, and they do not consider it possible that God, being so great, can make himself small, that he can really come close to us.
In the end, what is missing is genuine humility, which is able to submit to what is greater, but also the genuine courage that leads one to believe what is really great, even if it is manifested in a defenseless child.
Lacking is the capacity to be children at heart, to be amazed, and to come out of oneself to undertake the way indicated by the star, the way of God. Nevertheless, the Lord has the power to make us able to see and to save us. Therefore, we want to ask him to give us a wise and innocent heart, which will allow us to see the star of his mercy, which will lead us on his way, to meet him and be inundated by the great light and the true joy that he has brought to this world. Amen.
[Translation by ZENIT]