We could say that the leading actor of the Epiphany is a star. Not in the figurative sense we give to this term in the show business, but in the literal meaning of the word. Not only in the gospel is a mysterious star mentioned, which leads the magi from the east to Bethlehem; but all today’s liturgy is full of references to that star.
We have begun the Mass with an ancient hymn, What Star is This (*). It was composed, in the 18th century by the Rector of Paris University, Charles Coffin. He wrote it in Latin under the title of Quae stella sole pulchrior (= “what star [shines] more beautiful than the sun?”); then it had several translations into English (ours is by John Chandler, lived in the 19th century). Well, the hymn says that this star has “beams so bright”, that it is “more lovely than noonday light.” How can this be possible? How can a star be brighter than the sun? Because this star announces the birth of a King, who has come to rend the darkness of the world. The Apostle John in his gospel says: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
This star is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Balaam: “From Jacob shall a star proceed.” This year I have wished you a Blessed Christmas precisely with that prophecy: Orietur stella (= “a star shall rise”). Behold, that star has finally risen, and some wise men in the east have seen it: “And lo! the eastern sages stand to read in heaven the Lord’s command.” God speaks to us even through nature; it is up to us to be able to read in it the signs of his will, and then, after discovering his will, to obey it.
This star is a symbol of grace, the light and strength that from inside urges us to good: “O Jesus, while the star of grace impels us on to seek thy face, let not our slothful hearts refuse the guidance of thy light to use.” We should, like the magi, follow the impulse of grace within us, to seek God who is revealing himself to us. We should not yield to our sloth. Of course, following the star is not easy; it is hard; it demands of us to set off toward the unknown; but it is an effort fully rewarded, as was the effort of the magi, who found the Child with Mary his mother.
Grace, although indispensable, is not sufficient by itself. The magi, following the star, arrived in Jerusalem, but they did not find the newborn King of the Jews. To find it, they needed the testimony of the Jewish Scriptures, where they found the prophecy about Bethlehem. So, with the guidance of the star and of the Scriptures they were able to find Jesus, the King of the Jews. Salvation is for all, for the Jews and the Gentiles. This is the “mystery,” of which Saint Paul talks in the second reading: “The Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” But the way to discover Jesus is the same for all: Scripture and grace. There are no reserved lanes for anybody. If the pagans do not find Jesus just thanks to the star—they need Scripture; in the same way, Scripture, which the Jews already had, is not enough for them to recognize their Savior—they also need grace, like anybody else.
We have both of them, Scripture and grace. The light and the strength that emanate from them lead us to Jesus. Just the sloth of our hearts can prevent us from following them. Let us ask the Lord to deliver us from our laziness, to give us the strength to continue our journey toward him, and finally to grant us the grace of finding and adoring him.
(*) Here’s the lyrics of the hymn:
What star is this, with beams so bright,More lovely than the noonday light?’Tis sent to announce a new-born King,Glad tidings of our God to bring.’Tis now fulfilled what God decreed,“From Jacob shall a star proceed;”And lo! the eastern sages stand,To read in heav’n the Lord’s command.O Jesus, while the star of graceImpels us now to seek thy Face,Let not our slothful hearts refuseThe guidance of thy light to use.To God the Father, heav’nly Light,To Christ, revealed in earthly night,To God the Holy Spirit raiseAn endless song of thankful praise.
And the following is the original Latin text:
Quæ stella sole pulchriorCoruscat? hæc Regis noviRevelat ortus; hæc DeiPræsignat ad cunas iter.Stat vatibus priscis fides:En Stella surgit ex Jacob;Arrectus ad spectaculumEous orbis emicat.Dum sidus admonet foris,Lux fulget intus clarior;Suadetque vi blandâ MagosSigni datorem quærere.Segnes amor nescit moras;Labor, pericla nil movent:Domum, propinquos, patriam,Deo vocante, deserunt.Micante dum nos allicis,O Christe, Stellâ gratiæ;Ne tarda cœlesti sinasObstare corda lumini.Qui lumen est, sit laus Patri,Qui se revelat gentibus;Sit laus perennis Filio;Par sit tibi laus, Spiritus.
(Hymni sacri, 1736; Paris Breviary)Text: Charles Coffin, 1676-1749; tr. by John Chandler, 1806-1876
Tune: Puer nobis, 15th century (first published in 1604)
Harmonization: Michael Praetorius, 1571-1621