by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the Idente Missionaries.
Madrid, January 05, 2020. Epiphany of the Lord.
Book of Isaiah 60: 1-6, 12-14; Letter to the Ephesians 3: 2-3a.5-6; Saint Matthew 2:1-12.
When I was a young aspiring astrophysicist, at the Tenerife Observatory (Spain), after several hours of night work on a computer-guided telescope, my veteran instructor said: Now we are going to see the stars… for real. We went outside the dome, and in the cold of the night we felt how the stars seemed to burn us with their light. I have never forgotten it. It was something else; something beyond our calculations and data recording. It was the poetry and inspiration that has touched the heart of all cultures and religions for centuries.
The Magi have become the symbol of people around the world, set out on the way leading to Jesus to receive that salvation inaugurated by the Christ’s birth and brought to fulfilment in the paschal mystery of his Death and Resurrection. And all this is expressed simply by a star.
Christmas star is not to be found in heaven. Saint Matthew writes for readers who are familiar with the Old Testament and are waiting to see the appearance of a star mentioned in a mysterious prophecy in the book of Numbers by Balaam and his talking donkey. Balaam was an astrologer, a magician of the East, perhaps similar to the ones mentioned in the Gospel today. One day, 1200 years before the birth of Jesus, he unintentionally prophesized: I see it but it is not an event that will happen shortly; I behold him but not near. A star shall come forth from Jacob, a king, born of Israel, rises… One of Jacob will dominate over his enemies (Num 24:17-19).
By presenting the three wise men of the East who saw the star, the evangelist wants to tell his readers: from the lineage of Jacob the expected savior rose. It is Jesus. He is the star. This is the message of hope of the Epiphany, the feast of light. It was widely believed that the birth of a great person was accompanied by the appearance in the sky of his star: big for the wealthy, tiny for the poor. The appearance of a comet was thought to be a sign of the advent of a new emperor.
In the world, a star is a celebrity. The focus is on the star. It is the point of attraction but Jesus is different from the movie stars because his mission was not to draw us to Himself but to the Father. I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world (Jn 17: 6).
The star of Epiphany is a light, revealing what has been covered with darkness. The first disciples, in the midst of their blurred vision and understanding, said in an inspired way: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (Jn 6:68).
By affirming that Christ is the true Christmas star, we not only make a beautiful metaphor and an artistic evocation, but we recognize how He illuminates for us the practical way to change our lives.
Firstly, Christ illuminates us with his life and his word so that we can truly know ourselves. He reveals to us what is in our lives and separates us from God. In our Ascetical Examination, this is reflected in the Didactic Lesson, in which we are allowed to see the effects of our faults and sins, what are the effects of the discontinuity of prayer and the consequences of a divided heart.
Only Christ allows us to do, from the darkest and most mistaken things, something useful, a true recycling of our errors, from which we learn lessons that are truly constructive and valuable for the Kingdom of Heaven. Yes, the star, lighting the darkness of the heavens at night, has been always a symbol of divine guidance.
The impulses and effects of our instincts are often dark and hidden. Christ enlightens them with His parables and His observations on the conduct and intentions of the Pharisees, the powerful, the religious leaders, and most of the rich.
He allows us to see how the Instinct for happiness can deceive us. If searching for happiness becomes the driving force that guides us to perform good actions, then it will move us to expect satisfaction, gratitude and recognition. This is one of the devil’s most formidable weapons to mislead us. That was what he tried to do with Jesus when He began His public ministry, by distracting Him from doing the will of His Father and His Mission. He tempts with legitimate pleasures, all kinds of powers and many forms of wealth and comfort.
Moreover, Jesus Christ illuminates something that man can only half see and understand: the true meaning and scope of love. Basically, we all have some idea and experience of the love we have received and given. We can reflect and write a lot about love, but only when we see it incarnate in Christ do we understand what charity is. After he finished the story of the Good Samaritan, He said: Go and do likewise. In each of his actions, he demonstrated what it means to be meek and humble of heart.
The Gospel passage of the last judgement, is not referring only to the end of this world, because it reminds us of the kind of community where Jesus sees himself to be recognized, the kind of people where Jesus sees himself to make its presence felt.
The reading tells us that the sole criterion for judgement for worthiness for citizenship in the Kingdom of God, is our exercise of charity.
Jesus illustrates this criterion with simple things that everybody can do: feeding the hungry, giving thirsty people a drink, making a stranger welcome, providing covering for the ill-clothed, comforting the sick, and visiting those in jail. But even these simple manifestations of love are often neglected by us. These love criteria can be put into practice literally and have been called the ‘Corporal works of Mercy’, which the Church and her followers have practiced down the ages. The criterion does not exalt those who spent long hours in prayer, fasting and penance, without focusing on the needs of the human heart. To these human needs there is the response of the Kingdom people. That response is an authentic human response and therefore a profoundly religious one.
St Paul says today that pagans now share the same inheritance, that they are parts of the same body, and that the same promise has been made to them, in Christ Jesus, through the gospel. In other words, in Christ Jesus, we come to understand what it means to be a true man and a man who has fullness of life. Jesus reveals to us our identity as human beings in assuming our humanity. This was the case of the Magi who laid their gifts before the Infant King and in that way their hearts were transformed.
Most of all, He demonstrated to us His love for His Father by living a life of obedience, which is a life of sonship, of divine filiation.
Secondly, Christ illuminates with his life and his word the mystery of salvation.
Jesus himself explains the reason for His coming: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10). Our Father Founder teaches us that holiness, the life of perfection, consists in progressing in our filial awareness. The Epiphany, the continuous manifestation of Christ, shows us clearly that this means making progress in understanding and living the mystery of salvation. This explains the importance and centrality of the mystical life. The mystery of salvation means that God wants to share His own life with us in Jesus Christ.
In the Christian faith, this Savior is named Emmanuel, “God with us” or “the Word became flesh”. Therefore, Jesus is the perfect revelation of God, the Father, and this is why He says: He who has seen me has seen the Father (Jn 14: 9b).
At the time of Jesus, it was thought that the people were not able to understand the thoughts and plans of the Lord because the ways of God are far away from ours as the heavens are above the earth (Is 55:9). Only some privileged people, through dreams, signs and visions, could understand some aspects of those divine plans. But now, Saint Paul finally clarifies what the mystery consists of: it is the salvation of all people.
With the Apostles, we receive from God the gift of full understanding of his mystery: To you is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven (Mk 4:11). But a mystery, as Pope Francis always reminds us, is not simply to be unveiled or understood, but to be entered into. This is why, on this feast of Epiphany, we are called to be a light in darkness. We too are called to be sign of hope for many devastated and lonely people. Through our works of mercy and compassion, we are called to reach out to those who are living in the shadow of death and in darkness. And for that we do not necessarily have to travel far.
In the midst of our uncertainties and powerlessness, living in prayer, in permanent offering, as we say in the Eucharist, we will not be confused. As a consequence, they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way. We too will walk a safe path if we welcome His love and mercy.
Like the Magi, we must be willing to take risks. They took the risk of travelling from afar to a foreign land to find the baby Jesus, like Mary and Joseph, they trusted in God.
We too must sustain our dreams because, at times, the star might disappear from our sight. Do not be surprised that there are ups and downs in in our relationship with our fellowmen and with God.
And we should not travel alone. The Wise Men worked together, consulted each other and walked together in good and bad times. Unfortunately, in natural or religious families, many of us want to travel alone. We have the impression that we are not understood or that others slow us down. Some even say that others do not allow them to develop their talents or their generosity.
No Christmas reflection would be complete without a story that lifts our fantasy to God.
Once upon a time there was a young woman who longed to see God. Her name was Stella. All her young life Stella had prayed, worked hard, helped others and gave to the poor and needy generously and compassionately. But still, she longed to see God… to look God in the pupil of his eye.
She told a wise old man of her desire to see God. The old man listened and understood. He told Stella: Beginning tonight, go out and count the stars. Start with the Rigel star in Orion and count to the east. Do not count any star twice. When you have counted the ten thousandth star, you will be looking into the very light of God’s eye.
And so, that night, Stella went out and began to count the stars. After several hours, she had counted hundreds of stars. She returned the next night and the next night and the next night. What she didn’t realize was that as she counted far into the eastern sky, the stars were revolving and turning through the heavens. One night, twelve months later, Stella was counting aloud, “9998, 9999…”. As she concluded her count, she realized that the ten thousandth star was Rigel, the very star she had started with a year before. She found her heart filled with the greatest joy and wonder as she gazed at the star, for the star seemed to be gazing back at her.
That very night she ran to the house of the wise old man and told him what she had seen.
My daughter, he explained, you were looking for the light of God’s eye. But God was there all along. You just didn’t realize it. The whole sky had to move through one complete revolution just so you could recognize what was right in front of you to start with. God moved heaven and earth to bring you to this moment. That’s how much God loves you! The eye with which you look at God is the very same eye with which God is looking at you.