When I was studying in the seminary in Rome, I enjoyed the different takes on holiday traditions that the people of Italy celebrated. One such time for me was the open-air market that they had in Piazza Navona in the center of town. The piazza is one of the major ones in Rome, and it had probably been a Roman circus back in the day. Now, shops, government buildings, restaurants and not one but two churches, in addition to the magnificent fountains and sculptures, surround it. In Advent and Christmas time, the piazza hosts stands of all sorts, selling all sorts of junk – Nativity sets, ornaments, and Christmas lights that generally lasted about a week and a half.
Among the “craperia” (as my friends called it), there were characters of the season: Babo Natale (or Santa Claus), and a new one by me – La Befana, the “Epiphany Witch.” Here’s the legend of La Befana, as I understand it:
Befana was an old woman who was renowned in her town for her meticulous housekeeping. She straightened and swept her home every day (that’s probably why she is usually depicted with a broom). One day, the Three Wise Men came to the town on their way to find the Christ Child. Befana welcomed them into her home and let them stay the night in true comfort. The next morning, as the Wise Men were leaving, they invited her to go with them to see the Messiah. Befana declined, insisting that she had too much housework to do (her neat house was a mark of pride for her). However, after some thought, Befana changed her mind and decided to follow the Magi on their way. Unfortunately, they we already well gone.
Heartbroken over missing this one-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Befana is said to roam the world, seeking the Christ Child. Whenever she comes across a child, she offers a gift, believing that he or she might be the One, and knowing that Christ dwells in the hearts of the childlike.
Today, we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord – a Feast day not for the Wise Men but for Jesus. Today, Jesus is revealed to the nations in the persons of the Magi from afar. We have much to reflect upon in this feast as we look around us.
Like the Wise Men, there are those who seek the Lord. They might be people of Reason and Science, whose natural gifts of wisdom and learning, like the Magi, come to the understanding that “something big” is happening. This “something big” is not graspable by mere reason alone; they are aware that there is more out there, and they follow. This reason will take them so far, but Faith is necessary to go the rest of the way.
By reason, the Magi travel to Jerusalem – the home of kings – in search of the newborn King of the Jews, whose star they have seen. Jerusalem is also a house of faith, where the treasury of worship and prophecy has been held. Herod, who consults his faith advisors, gives the Magi further direction. However, Herod is not joyful; he is fearful and he is jealous. The powerful action of God – action of change – is a threat to him in his mind. We know that Heron then harbored evil thoughts and plans for Christ after that.
What do we take from all this? Where are we? Are we searching for Christ but don’t know it, like the Wise Men? Are we looking for Jesus but don’t know where to look, like Befana? Or, are we aware that God is doing powerful things in our world and are fearful because of the change it could bring, like Herod?
“Epiphany” means “manifestation” – it is also an encounter – an encounter with the Lord. Through that encounter, the Magi are changed and they return to their home by another way. Herod’s fear and jealousy prevent him from having that encounter and, in fact, drive him farther from the encounter with the Lord. Befana … well, Befana is still out there, looking for the Child. Maybe you know her.
Maybe you are her?
Here, in this celebration, we encounter Jesus – personally, truly. He comes to us, speaking in His Word and nourishing us with His Body and Blood. How are we going to be changed by this encounter? This is a time for resolutions. Let’s put aside fear, doubt and jealousy, and embrace openness to God’s saving work in our lives, so we can carry this encounter out to all we meet.