by Sr. Maria Borda, MMM Malta/Tanzania 06.01.2022
The Magi- Astrologers described in the Gospel ( Mt 2:1-12) had to be a little crazy leaving the security of their homeland to venture forth into a strange country presided over by a mad king like Herod, in search of a Divine Child. But their great Faith, and adventurous spirit enabled them to discover the secret of the whole universe – the secret of God’s incredible love for His people , ‘the Salvation which He has prepared for All Nations’.
The Star: In the Book of Numbers, the prophet Balaam speaks of “a star that shall come out of Jacob.” Stars were believed to be signs from God, announcing important events. In the last 40 years, a number of scientists and astronomers have pointed to particular clusterings of planets or stars around the time of Jesus’ birth, which would have created an unusual or dramatic heavenly “portent,” suggesting that perhaps Matthew’s account is more historical than some might choose to believe.
The Gifts: Gold, frankincense and myrrh may be thought of as prophesying Jesus’ future. (see the picture). These gifts were not only expensive but portable. Perhaps Joseph sold the gifts to finance the Holy Family’s trip to Egypt. The gifts might have been God’s way of providing for the journey that lay ahead.
Traditions grow around these feast days. The first written version of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is said to have existed since the 1700’s. It was thought in the past that these symbols were a code to teach children about the Catholic faith at a time when Christians were under persecution; or that these Twelve days were the length of time it took for the Magi to travel from their homeland to find the newborn Messiah. Others would say that Jesus was about 2 years old by the time the Magi found him. Herod, alarmed to hear of the birth of a new King of the Jews by the Magi, consulted his scribes as to when the Messiah was to be born, and ordered the massacre of all children around Bethlehem of 2 years and under.
In Italy, as in the Orthodox Church, gifts are exchanged on the Feast of the Epiphany rather than at Christmas, but instead of Santa Claus, it is the Italian ‘Befana’, a benign witch travelling on a broomstick, who leaves gifts for the kids who have been good. The Befana however puts coals under the pillow of those who have not been well-behaved (whatever about their poor mothers’ laundry load!!)
In France, a ‘Galette des Rois’ (‘Royal Cake’), filled with frangipane (almond custard) is prepared, with a little gift hidden in it. Whoever gets the slice with the gift is crowned king or queen for the day.
In my own country, Malta, the day of the Epiphany is the day to dismantle the ‘gulbiena’, a grain (‘vetch seed’) planted on the feast of the Immaculate Conception (8th December) in cotton wool and kept moist in the dark, where it germinates and grows like white angels’ hair. It is placed near the crib, symbolising the innocence of the Child and the Wheat which would later become His Eucharistic food for us.
I imagine that many, like myself, sing with relish the beloved Carol for the Epiphany, ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’, imagining the camels’ dignified regular footsteps as they carry the kings, each bearing his gift with its special significance.
For me, the Epiphany is a symbol of my journey through life, seeking Christ. Since my youth (and I now count my age in decades) I yearned for a Star to show me the Way He wanted me to follow. At vital points in my life, the Star grew brighter and brighter until I had no doubts when I finally had to make the decision: discerning did He really want me to give my life to Him as a religious, whether Medical Missionaries of Mary was the congregation He was leading me to, whether developing skills in the care of Mothers and Children was where my life would give Him greatest glory, whether Tanzania would be the mission where I would serve Him most fruitfully….. At times, the Star would hide, and I would be thirsting for it to appear again, but I knew that It was there all along, and unfailingly it would re-appear, gently but unmistakably. Looking back, I know I would never have ventured to plan the amazing path along which He led me through His Star…
And so my journey continues, until that Star completes its mission and leads me to my Final Destination with Him.
(partly Adapted from ‘Reflections for the feast of the Epiphany, Vatican News’; & James Montgomery Boice for reflection on the Gifts)