Solemnity of the EPIPHANY OF THE LORD – Year B
Click the picture to listen the commentary
A good feast for everyone. Today is the feast of Epiphany. In some countries it is still celebrated on January 6th. Why? We know that 'epiphany' comes from the Greek verb 'epifaino', which means to manifest. Who is the one who was manifested on January 6th? A note on the origin of this feast will help us to better grasp the message of the Gospel passage presented to us today.
On January 6, it was celebrated the manifestation, the epiphany of light. What light? In the Orient, already in the 3rd century B.C. the winter solstice festival was celebrated; a festival dedicated to the triumph of light over darkness. The scene of Apollo, the Sun God, in the two wheeled chariot drawn by four horses that triumphs over the darkness of the night, was represented everywhere in the ancient world. In the background, I placed the metope (rectangular piece of marble or stone) of Helios, from the architrave of the temple of Athena (the goddess of wisdom, war and crafts) in Troy from 300 BC (in ancient Greek mythology ?λιος - H?lios, is the God of the Sun).
We know that the winter solstice is when for a few days the sun seems to stop its descent (Northern hemisphere) and then it starts to come out again. It seems that the sun goes out in the dark going down more and more, and then it starts to come out again. It is the victory of light over darkness. This date of the winter solstice was calculated in ancient times in a very approximate way; for us it is December 21, but in ancient times when they realized that the light had truly overcome darkness, it was January 6. In fact, under the reign of Tiberius, that is, in the time of Jesus, the solstice was celebrated in Alexandria and throughout the Near East around January 6.
This material sunlight that was considered a God and this religion of the Sun God was introduced especially by the Roman emperors, Heliogabalus and Aurelian. And it was the latter who instituted the festival of the undefeated sun that was celebrated on different dates, but always between December 25 and January 6.
What happened when Constantine arrived? This festivity remained as a celebration of the manifestation of the light, of the victory of the light over darkness, but it was no longer the celebration of the victory of the material sun over the darkness of the night, but the victory of the light that came from heaven, which is Christ, who illuminated the darkness of our minds and of our hearts. It is the new light that comes from heaven; this is the epiphany that we celebrate today.
Let us remember the magnificent song of Zechariah: "Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel... For the tender mercies of our God, will visit us from on high; a dawn that illuminates those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, who directs our steps along a path of peace" (Lk 1:68,78-79). The manifestation of light - but of what light? The manifestation was that of God's unconditional love and it is this light that illuminated the world. People had always imagined the gods as whimsical, they felt powerless before these god’s unpredictable actions; people tried to appease them, to favor them with sacrifices; they even went so far as to offer human sacrifices, some even sacrificing their children to these deities; They were also considered jealous. These gods had kept immortality for themselves and humans had been destined for death. The tenderness of love for humans did not exist with these gods'. In Israel it was all a progressive discovery of the God of love and this revelation made to Israel was a preparation to be able to welcome this light that revealed God's unconditional love by the man who would come into the world with Christ.
This light began to shine with Christ, the new light that definitely made darkness disappear from the world. But who has seen this light shine? Who has let himself be guided and led and involved by the light of heaven? And who, on the other hand, were bothered with this light and even wanted to turn it off at dawn?
It is to these questions that the story composed by Matthew responds; from the beginning of his Gospel he wants to guide his readers to discover and above all, to bring them to adhere to, to welcome this light. Let's listen to his story, keeping in mind that this is not a news story but to a composition of the evangelist; then we will try to highlight the images he uses and references to the Old Testament so that we can grasp the message he wants to communicate:
"When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.”
The story begins with the staging of enigmatic characters; the magi who came from the East in search of the light - they saw a shining star and have identified it as the birth of a new king. The Christian tradition fell in love with these mysterious sages who came from the East. In the Roman catacombs they are represented alongside Jesus two centuries before the shepherds - who appear only in the fourth century; and around these images endless legends flourished.
The first of these legends was to elevate them to royal dignity. This was a step that was encouraged by Matthew's allusion to Psalm 72: 'The king of Sheba and Seba will bring gifts; all kingdoms will pay homage to him.’ Then it was immediately thought that those who brought gifts and paid homage to the new-born Jesus, were kings... the kings mentioned in Psalm 72.
The second step was to specify the number of these magi, and the numbers varied from 2 to 12 but then they settled on number 3 because there were three gifts offered to the new born Jesus. The third step was to give names to these magicians: and we know them as Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar.
How did this story end? The tradition loved the magi so much that they wanted to accompany them until the end of their lives with legends and, in fact, it is said that after many vicissitudes they had in their lives because of the faith in this new king, they have abandoned their adherence to the kings of the world and followed the king they had found. After sixty years they met again to celebrate the Christmas party in Sebaste, in Armenia; celebrated the Mass and then died one after another; Melchior on January 1 was 116 years old, Balthazar on January 6 was 112 years old and then Gaspar on January 11 was the youngest at 109.
Then, the relics of these magicians have travelled more after their death than when they were living and even in the last century, in the 20th century, these relics of the magi were still moving! We know that they were in Milan and then taken to Cologne by Frederic Barbarossa in 1164. In closing this account of these legends about the magi it is important to note that Christian devotion has become attached to these characters and we will soon see why.
The evangelist Matthew calls them 'magi' we have created the terms 'wise men' to soften the reference to magic that today does not enjoy a good name nor did it in the past, both in Israel and in the Roman world. In fact, most magicians were considered to be frauds. We remember Tacitus who quotes among the absurd things in fashion in Rome the predictions made by the astrologers and the rites practiced by the magicians and the interpretation of dreams. Suetonius speaking of Tiberius says that he had consulted all the magicians of Rome
in 19 A.D., right in the time of Jesus.
Why does Matthew still call them the Magi? He could have spoken of the wise men, of intellectuals, of astronomers. NO. He calls them 'magi' and the reason is that he alludes to an Old Testament prophecy that was uttered by a wizard from the East named Balaam.
The interesting story of this magician is told in the book of Numbers; you can read it from chapters 22 to 24. This Balaam had been called by King Balak of Moab who had seen the Israelites pass through his land and he didn't agree. So he wanted to fight these Israelites, but the Israelites were strong and then they had the reputation of having on their side an invincible God who had even defeated the Egyptians. So, what does Balak do? He calls Balaam, a magician, to send a curse on the Israelites. He calls him, but what happens? He takes him to a mountain and instead of cursing Israel he blesses them. Then Balak takes him to another mountain, but he continues to bless Israel. The king says: 'I pay you to curse them and you bless them.’
We are interested in the fourth oracle of this magician from the East. He says: " The oracle of Balaam, son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is true” (note how the magicians before pronouncing their oracle create that mysterious atmosphere) "The oracle of one who hears what God says, and knows what the Most High knows, Of one who sees what the Almighty sees, in rapture and with eyes unveiled. I see him, though not now; I observe him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a scepter (that is, an extraordinary kingdom) shall rise from Israel" (Num 24:15-17).
The author referred to a star that should emerge in the Davidic dynasty; this star should be the king Josiah; he was the one this prophecy referred to. We also use similar images referring to the world of show business, of sport, of music and we say: 'A new star is born... a new star that eclipses all those who preceded him'. Matthew introduced the magi from the East who have seen the star rise because it is the star announced by Balaam. They thought it was King Josiah to whom Balaam’s prophecy referred, but Matthew tells us NO. The star born in the dynasty of David, the one who was to give birth to an endless kingdom is Christ, is Jesus.
Therefore, this 'star' has nothing to do with Halley's comet or with the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Matthew wants to tell us that someone immediately recognized in Jesus the star announced by Balaam. Of course, we must not make the star disappear from the manger, but we must explain, even to the children, and grandchildren that it is not Halley's comet; Jesus is the star, he is the light that guides every person, he is the star to follow, not the misleading stars of the successful people of this world. It is this light that makes us see what really matters, the authentic values of life. If we follow other stars, remember – they are shooting stars, they will lead us to failure in life.
The coming of Jesus into the world is immediately presented in the New Testament as the entrance of light. This is the epiphany, the manifestation of the light that comes from heaven. When the shepherds receive the announcement of the birth of Jesus, the glory of the Lord wrapped them in light, they were filled with fear ... it is a light they had never seen. Then Simeon: "My eyes have seen your salvation, O God prepared by you in the presence of all peoples, a light to enlighten the people". And also, the Gospel of John in the prologue, at the beginning speaking of the Baptist it is said that 'he came to bear witness to the light, he was not the light, but he had to bear witness to the light; the true light came into the world that which enlightens every person'. Then, in chapter 3 the evangelist John says: "The light has come into the world, but people preferred darkness to light," they preferred to act in darkness because light makes it clear if you go astray, if you love the things that are bad. Then, in chapter 8 when Jesus presents himself as the light: "I am the light of the world, he who follows me does not walk in darkness, but has the light of life.” The light has come into the world, it has manifested itself, it was the epiphany of this light.
There are two attitudes to this light that begins to shine and are presented in the Gospel of Matthew in the passage we are commenting today: two groups of people who stand in front of this epiphany of light coming from heaven. The first group is that of magi. What characterizes them in their attitude toward the light? Who do these magi represent? First of all, they are those who raise their gaze, they see this star, and are not satisfied with looking at the earth because from the earth comes what is necessary for the biological life, which is also important but earthly life is a life that ends, whereas man is made for a life that does not end, and this life can only come from above and this is the light that shines in Jesus of Nazareth.
Raising one's gaze is typical of the one who wonders about the meaning of his or her existence and destiny. People did not have the light, it has come only with Christ. Before, philosophers tried to find an answer to these disturbing questions and they could not find it; it has been given directly by God with this light that has come for us in Christ. The first characteristic, then, of those who adhere to this light is to raise their eyes, to let themselves be questioned by inner restlessness; they have glimpsed a light that could give meaning to their life. They set out. The pagan kingdom to which they belonged, the religion they practiced did not satisfy them, they were looking for a new kingdom, wanted to belong to a kingdom that lasts while all the kingdoms of this world are collapsing. Now we understand why the magi seems so nice to us, because they are us, they represent us in the search for the star that really guides our life and our steps.
And see how tradition has intelligently identified these characters: Melchior, the old man, with white hair and long beard is the one who offers the gold. He represents those who raise their eyes, perhaps in old age, with their history. Balthazar, the dark-skinned one, the mature man, the one who offers the myrrh. And then Gaspar, the young beardless, rose-skinned man, is the one who offers the incense. All races and ages are represented. We are those magi and, therefore, the invitation that Matthew makes to us is to be like them, like those people who raise their eyes and let themselves be enveloped by this light from heaven who is Christ.
Now a second group enters the scene. A group for whom this light was not welcome. It is King Herod; He is still troubled and with him all Jerusalem. They are those who are installed in their position of political or religious power; they are the king of this world, the rulers and those who also invoke God as the protector of their power and domination. They are installed; they do not move; for them everything is fine, just as it is. Slavery in the Roman Empire is fine, if there are wretches... it's fine like that. ‘As we are well and we are strong, our kingdom must continue.' They do not want change; These people have no concerns because they have been silenced, they are drugged by possessions and by power.
The verb used by the evangelist Matthew is ?ταρ?χθη - 'etarajte' – which means to “frighten”. This tremor indicates the agitation of the sea, of turbulent waters. It is the same verb used by the historian Josephus Flavius when he speaks of the terror of the Pharaoh and all the Egyptians when they learned of the birth of Moses, the coming of the deliverer, the one who wants to change the world; throws all the pharaohs into a panic. Herod already killed a dozen relatives, for fear that they would take over his throne and that is why it is normal for him to get scared because he is afraid of anybody who threatens his rule.
We are surprised, however, that with him all Jerusalem is in turmoil. Why does all Jerusalem tremble at the announcement that a new kingdom has begun? Because Matthew presents Jerusalem as the city wrapped in darkness; If you stay in Jerusalem, you do not see this light shining. This Jerusalem indicates the old world, the old way of conceiving God, the way to relate with him; it is that temple religion that was on a trade with god: He was offered something so that God would be benevolent. NO. This is darkness on the face of God. Now this darkness is dissolved by the light that comes with Christ and Jerusalem trembles because it is in darkness and is afraid of this light. We know that when Jesus enters the temple they will remain disturbed by the light which brings about on the face of God and on the new religion, the new relationship of man with God.
And Herod is upset because Jesus came with his light to bring down the kingdoms of this world. The kingdom he brings is not that of the rulers but that of the servant. Great in this Kingdom is not the one who sits on the throne but the one who starts washing the feet of his brothers and sisters. For Herod and for the scribes around him, that would have been the moment, the opportunity of a lifetime. Herod could have renounced his past, made of conspiracies, cruelty and murders. It was precisely when Jesus was born, in the year 7 before Christ, that he killed two of his sons, Alexander and Aristobulus. He could have put an end to a disastrous life and welcomed the new light as well. NO. He did not accept the demonstration, the epiphany of the new king; he would die three years later at Jericho.
We also see this alliance of political power with religious power. He who is in the sphere of power always lives in the lie, works in secret, fears the light. One must always distrust those who have political or religious power. Now it is clear that with this text we are facing a page of theology, not a page of chronicle. When Herod says: 'Go to Bethlehem and then come and tell me if you have found him’ this cannot be chronicle; Herod was not so naive as not to be able to solve the problem otherwise and find out who that child was that had just been born. Let us now hear how the search for the star that is Christ ends:
"After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.”
They do not see the star in Jerusalem; in the capital only darkness reigns, which indicates the power of the kingdoms of this world, the religion invented by people... here the light does not shine. When they leave Jerusalem, they see the light again of this star that is Christ. It is the invitation for us to come out of the impasse that indicates the traditional way of justifying everything that happens, the common way of thinking, the way of reasoning, the way of evaluating everyone. It is the realm of world logic; it is what teaches that the successful person is the one who accumulates goods, the one who achieves power, the one who enjoys life.
It is necessary to leave this place to be able to contemplate the star; otherwise there is a mental dullness and dullness of hearts. Jerusalem represents the realm of religion that does not establish a gratuitous love relationship with God but a commercial relationship as it was in the temple of Jerusalem. It is necessary to leave this city, otherwise you will never see the light of the star who is Christ. And one of the signs that light does not shine is sadness. As soon as they leave Jerusalem, they see the light again and an immense joy takes possession of them.
This is the first time it appears in Matthew's gospel χαρ?ν - 'jaran' = joy. And it is presented as χαρ?ν μεγ?λην σφ?δρα = Jaran megalen sfodra' = means a great joy, an immense joy. The path to the light is what leads you to joy because only the acceptance of the proposal of man that Christ makes is the one that corresponds to your identity so that you finally find peace and harmony with yourself.
The path to this light is not easy; let us bear in mind that there are moments when this light disappears and we too are plunged into the darkness, the fog of this world and what to do in these difficult moments that later represent our own path, moments of fear, of doubt, of uncertainty when even hope diminishes. In these moments, it is like when we drive a car and there is a moment of fog, we do not change direction because we had seen that the road was going in that direction.
Here the magi have not abandoned the direction of their life, have continued to seek this light and when they finally find Christ they present their gifts. Where did Matthew go to find this gold, frankincense and myrrh? When he wrote his story, he took this message of the gifts presented by those who saw the star, from the prophecy of the book of the prophet Isaiah.
This is what the prophet had said: "Arise (he says to Jerusalem), shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you…” What happens when this new light shines? "and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord" (Is 60:1-3.6).
Now we understand how in our tradition these wise men come on camels and dromedaries. Our brothers and sisters in faith read the Scriptures and this is why they also showed us these images. Here are presented the gifts that the prophet had said would be brought to the new king: gold and incense, and myrrh is added. There were many interpretations of these three gifts.
The symbolism is biblical. What does gold represent? The offering that is made as payment of a tribute to the sovereign. And what do those who have seen the light of the new king do? They present him their tribute, that is, they recognize that he is king and they want to belong to his kingdom. Incense. Incense is the specific element of priestly service; only priests could offer incense; these people who have seen the light and have given the adhesion to the new kingdom, are also priests, that is, they offer to God that worship that pleases Him, that incense that He likes; the only incense that He likes is love, service to the brothers and sisters. Whoever enters this new kingdom is also a priest, offers to God the worship that pleases Him. And then the myrrh. If we open the Song of Songs, myrrh is continuously repeated as the symbol of love. Already in the first chapter the wife says: "My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh" (Song 1:13). And a little further on is the husband who says, "I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spices, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk...." (Song 5:1).
Here are the magi representing all those who have joined the new kingdom; they are priests, have a conjugal relationship with God; He is no longer the master, the lawmaker, the executioner...NO. He is the one who loves people unconditionally and people feel involved as the wife with the husband in this love.
And the magi return by another path. It's not about the road they have taken; rather it is about the new way of life as they have discovered the new light and now for them begins a completely new relationship with God, with themselves and with their brothers and sisters. The message for us is to let ourselves be guided by this star so that our life story will have its meaning.
I wish you all a happy feast-day.