Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Light of Bethlehem, Light of the World

Homily of Pope Benedict XVI
Solemnity of the Epiphany

January 6, 2010

Dear brothers and sisters!

Today, the Solemnity of the Epiphany, the great light radiating from the Cave of Bethlehem, floods all of mankind through the Magi who came from the East.

The first Reading, taken from the Book of the prophet Isaiah (60:1-6), and the passage from the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12), which we just heard, bring together side by side the promise and its fulfillment, in that particular tension that results when successively reading passages from the Old and the New Testaments.

There comes before us the splendid vision of the Prophet Isaiah who, after the humiliations undergone by the people of Israel at the hands of the powers of this world, sees the moment when the great light of God - apparently without power and incapable of protecting his people - would shine on all the earth so that the kings of nations would bow before him, coming from the ends of the earth to deposit the most precious treasures at his feet. And the heart of the people would tremble with joy.

Compared to that vision, that which the evangelist Matthew presents to us appears poor and humble: it seems impossible for us to recognize in it the fulfillment 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, mysterious personages, perhaps even suspicious, and in any case, not deemed worthy of particular attention.

The residents of Jerusalem learned of their coming, but they did not think it was worth their bother, and even in Bethlehem, no one seemed to care about the birth of this Baby, called King of the Jews by the Magi, these men who had come from the East to pay him a visit.

Shortly thereafter, in fact, when Herod made it clear that he was very much in power - forcing the Holy Family to flee to Egypt and offering proof of his cruelty in the massacre of the innocents (cf. Mt 2,13-18), the episode of the Magi appeared to have been annulled 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 we see even in the representation of the Nativity scene today - where there are camels and kings kneeling before the Baby, laying down their gifts to him in precious chests.

But we must pay more attention to what the two texts communicate to us.

What, in fact, did Isaiah see with his prophetic sight?

In one single moment, he glimpsed a reality that was destined to mark all of history. But even the event Matthew narrates to us is not a brief and negligible episode that closes after the Magi hurry back home in haste.

On the contrary, it is a beginning. Those personages who came from the East were not the last but the first of a great procession of those who, throughout all the epochs of history since then, have recognized the message of the Star, have walked along the paths indicated by Sacred Scripture, and thus, to find him who is apparently 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 grandeur and power are not expressed according to the world's logic, but in the logic of a helpless baby whose strength is only that of the love which he entrusts to us.

In the course of history, there are always those who are enlightened by the star, who find the way and reach him. All of them live, each in his own way, the experience of the Magi.

They had brought gold, incense and myrrh, They are certainly not gifts that correspond to primary or daily needs. At that moment, the Holy Family was much more in need of something other than incense or myrrh, and not even the gold could have been immediately useful 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 recognition of a person as God and King, and therefore, an act of submission.

They were meant to say that, from that moment on, the donors belong to the sovereign and they recognize his authority. The consequences of this are 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 been led for always along the road of the Baby, making them ignore the great and the powerful of the world, and taking them to Him who awaits us among the humble - the road of love which alone can transform the world.

Therefore, not only did the Magi set forth on their journey, but their deed started something new - they traced a new road, and a new light shone down on earth which has never gone out.

The vision of the prophet was realized: that light could no longer be ignored by the world. Men would go towards that Baby and would be illuminated 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 us, recognizing Christ our King and Priest who died for us, have honored 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 the promise of the prophet Isaiah and its fulfillment in the Gospel of Matthew together in the great context of all history, it is evident that what we have been told - which we seek to reproduce in our Nativity creches - is not a dream nor a vain play on sensations and emotions, devoid of vigor and reality, but it is the Truth that irradiates the world, even if Herod always seems stronger, and that Baby seems to be found among people of no importance or who are downtrodden.

But in that Baby is expressed the power of God, who brings together all men through the ages, so that 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 seem to be few. Many have seen the star, but only a few have understood its message.

Scholars of Scripture in the time of Jesus knew the Word of God perfectly well. They had the ability to say 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).

We can therefore 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 from those who remain indifferent, who point out the road but do not themselves move?

We can answer: too much certainty in themselves, a claim to knowing reality perfectly, the presumption of having formulated a definitive judgment on everything - these make them closed, and their hearts insensitive, to the news of God.

They are smug with the thought that they are made for the world and do not have to involve themselves in the intimacy of an adventure with a God who wants to meet them.

They have placed their confidence in themselves, not in Him, and they do not think it possible that God could be so great as to make himself small to really get close to us.

Ultimately, what they lack is authentic humility, which knows to submit itself to that which is greater, but they also lack authentic courage, which leads one to believe in what is truly great even if it manifests itself 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 way that the star points to, the way of God.

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.

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