ROME – Marking the Catholic feast of the Epiphany, when, according to the Bible, the three Magi – also called the three wise men or the three kings – found the infant Jesus and brought him gifts after following a star, Pope Francis on Sunday urged Catholics to imitate them in seeking the light of Christ, not that of the world.
When looking at the list of influential leaders at the time of Jesus’ birth such as Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, King Herod and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, it might be tempting “to turn the spotlight on them,” the pope said in his Jan. 6 homily for the Epiphany.
However, the word of God came “to none of the magnates, but to a man who had withdrawn to the desert,” he said, referring to John the Baptist. The surprise in this, Francis added, is that “God does not need the spotlights of the world to make himself known.”
“God’s light does not shine on those who shine with their own light,” he said, adding that “it is always very tempting to confuse God’s light with the lights of the world. How many times have we pursued the seductive lights of power and celebrity, convinced that we are rendering good service to the Gospel! But by doing so, have we not turned the spotlight on the wrong place, because God was not there.”
Rather than making a scene, God’s light is manifested in humble love, he said, noting that the Church itself has also at times “attempted to shine with our own light.”
“We are not the sun of humanity. We are the moon that, despite its shadows, reflects the true light, which is the Lord. He is the light of the world. Him, not us,” the pope said. Pointing to the day’s first reading from Isaiah, he said God’s light “does not prevent the darkness and the thick clouds from covering the earth, but shines forth on those prepared to accept it.”
Pope Francis said that like the Magi, who, after visiting Jesus “left by another road” in order to avoid passing by Herod, who wanted to kill the infant Jesus, Christians must choose to follow another path than the one offered by the world.
“In order to find Jesus, we also need to take a different route, to follow a different path, his path, the path of humble love. And we have to persevere,” he said, noting how the Magi left their home and “became pilgrims on the paths of God. For only those who leave behind their worldly attachments and undertake a journey find the mystery of God.”
Francis stressed that it is not enough to simply know that Jesus was born or where he was born, but a personal encounter such as the one the Magi had is needed in order to grow close to him. Christians, he said, must imitate the Magi, who did not argue or debate, but immediately set out without looking back to find Jesus and to be with him.
“They do not stop to look, but enter the house of Jesus. They do not put themselves at the center, but bow down before the One who is the center. They do not remain glued to their plans, but are prepared to take other routes,” he said, adding that the Magi had a “radical openness” and a “total engagement” with God reflected in the fact that they did not come to ask for anything, but brought gifts of their own.
“Let us ask ourselves this question: at Christmas did we bring gifts to Jesus for his party, or did we only exchange gifts among ourselves?” Francis asked, and reflected on the meaning of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh the Magi brought to Jesus.
Gold, he said, serves as a reminder that God has to be first place in a person’s life, and that he must be worshiped. To do this, he said, it is necessary “to remove ourselves from the first place and to recognize our neediness, the fact that we are not self-sufficient.”
Frankincense, a fragrant resin used in incense and perfumes, is a symbol of prayer and relationship with God. Like incense, which must be burned to release its fragrance, Catholics must “burn a little of our time” in prayer with God, “not just in words, but also by our actions,” he said.
On myrrh, a fragrant oil, the pope said noted how at Jesus’ death it was the ointment used to wrap his body when it was taken down from the cross.
The Lord, he said, “is pleased when we care for bodies racked by suffering, the flesh of the vulnerable, of those left behind, of those who can only receive without being able to give anything material in return. Precious in the eyes of God is mercy shown to those who have nothing to give back. Gratuitousness!”
With just a week left in the liturgical season of Christmas, which ends next Sunday with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Pope Francis urged faithful not to mist the opportunity “to offer a precious gift to our King, who came to us not in worldly pomp, but in the luminous poverty of Bethlehem. If we can do this, his light will shine upon us.”
The pope’s Christmas season comes to a close this week with his annual speech to diplomats on Monday and next Sunday’s baptism of newborns for Vatican employees, held in the Sistine Chapel.