Rorate Caeli

Fontgombault Sermon for the Epiphany (2021): As the Wise Men, Pay Attention to the Signs of the Times

Sermon of the Right Reverend Dom Jean Pateau

Abbot of Our Lady of Fontgombault

Fontgombault, January 6th, 2021

Vidimus stellam ejus.

We have seen His star.

(Mt 2:2)

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

My dearly beloved Sons,

Almost two weeks ago, the crib made us welcome to celebrate our Redeemer’s birth. Today, the Church invites us to attend His Epiphany, His manifestation to the world.

The birth of the Emmanuel, God with us, was indeed very private, hidden from the crowds: a secluded stable, Mary and Joseph alone, then a few shepherds summoned by the angels. That was all. The shepherds, silent men, probably kept the divine secret. Now, the time has come to proclaim this event. To whom will it be revealed, and how?

God is astonishing. On Christmas day, angels had borne the news of the divine birth to the shepherds. Isn’t that their role, as divine messengers? Today, to our utmost surprise, we can see arriving into our cribs a great show of colors, of animals, coming along with the mysterious Wise Men. Popular Christmas carols have many verses about them. These dignitaries’ arrival in Jerusalem must certainly have wrought havoc in the town. Very soon, the powerful were informed of the news, all the more as the Wise Men wished to meet them.

These men from the East reveal to Herod, to the princes, the priests, the scribes, the existence of the star and the birth of the kingly Child. In return, they receive from the learned men the name of the place where they will find Him Whom the prophecy calls “the Ruler, who will shepherd Israel.” How different human destinies are! With the name of Bethlehem, the Wise Men set off again on the road. They keep walking on this long road, which had started under the humble and discreet sign of the star. And behold, once again, the star is precisely before them, stopping over the place where the new-born baby is lying. With joy in their hearts, they push the stable gate. As to the powerful in Jerusalem, they won’t deign to cross the few miles separating them from Bethlehem. They were at a standstill on the road of God, and they will remain so. What is more, they will send other people to tread this road, not to adore the Child, but to kill Him. The news of the Messiah’s birth, far from assuaging their expectation, will only give rise in their hearts to hatred and fear. 

But the Child escapes from their hands, and Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled. The Child’s birth has not remained secret, for behold, the glory of the Lord is rising, and His radiance is shining upon the Gentiles: nations are walking in His light, and kings in the brightness of His dawn (cf. Is 61:1-3). In our turn, we are summoned to the crib. Which road shall we take? Herod’s way? The Wise Men’s way? A way of darkness or a way of light? The Wise Men paid attention to the signs of the times, which are the circumstances surrounding our lives, and remain, even though they might seem to be adverse, a gift of Providence, always coming with the grace of God that enables us to face the present moment according to God’s will. 

God comes to us in events. Nothing can escape His providence. The Wise Men are docile to the divine signs, and they accept to set off on the road, to give up their plans, their habits. They radically choose God. They convert, and they really do it. A vague desire, a remote will, are not enough. What is needed is acts, and concrete, repeated acts. The Wise Men set off, and their hands are not empty, for it is a King, Whose star they saw, that they are coming to visit.

The Gospel tells us that before leaving their faraway country, they took with them gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Benedictus antiphon on the day following Epiphany specifies, “gold, for He is the great King; frankincense, since He is the true God; myrrh, intended for His burial.” The Wise Men have now arrived to the crib. Whereas St. Matthew has described with great detail their stopover in Jerusalem to meet Herod, he describes very tersely their arrival in the stable. They fall down, adore, offer their gifts, and go back by another way.

What a contrast between Herod’s troubled encounter with the Child of the crib, and that of the Wise Men: for them, no appointment, no waiting, no customs before they enter. The only customs on the road leading to the encounter with Jesus would be the customs we ourselves set up, as Herod did, at the gate of our own hearts. The Lord’s ear remains attentive to whomever may speak to Him.

The Wise Men merely saw a mother and her child. It’s not much, and yet, they fall down and worship. What they see is banal, yet, it doesn’t hinder them from entering the mystery of this birth, which has required from them such a long journey. What is more, they allow the teaching of this presence to seep into them. God is inexhaustible. No one may emerge unchanged from an encounter with Him.

The Wise Men offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh, namely, what is the most beautiful and significant among that which they have. As to us, what kind of attention do we pay to the invitation to encounter Christ at each moment of our lives? What shall we offer to the Child coming to us? He is King, and His kingship is different from that of the powerful of this world: He reigns over hearts. Let us therefore offer Him the gold of our hearts. He is God, He therefore has a right to the incense of our prayer. Last, myrrh evokes His tragic destiny, His death, which for us is a token of our salvation.

The Child in the crib thus expects our love, our prayer, our misery. The mystery of Christmas invites us not to separate the gift of our hearts to God, from the gift of our own misery. Jesus expects everything from us, as He once told St. Jerome: “You haven’t given me everything, since you haven’t given me your misery.” No one truly loves Him if they don’t answer this ultimate expectation.

Even though we have to leave the crib, let us remain with God. Let us pursue our lives by another way, liberated from the burden of our misery, discarded at the feet of the Child. Let us also remember that the door of the crib remains open, should some other misery cast its gloom on our horizon. A star is shining on each of our lives, the star, a token of hope, a witness to the inexhaustible love of God, Who in the crib of Bethlehem wanted to receive the name of Jesus, God Savior.