Tomorrow is the Feast of Epiphany where we officially tell the story of the Magi who worshipped the Christ Child and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I thought I knew everything there was to know about this story, until I encountered a legend that is unique to Italy. It’s the story of La Befana, a version of which I read as the Children’s Sermon.
The short version of the story, is that La Befana lived alone in a house in the hills of Italy. She spent her days cooking and cleaning. One night she noticed a bright light in the sky. After some thought, La Befana decided to ignore the light and go back to sleep. A few days later, a caravan led by Three Wise Men stopped at La Befana’s house to ask for directions to Bethlehem. La Befana offered them hospitality. In return, the Wise Men invited her to come with them to visit Baby Jesus. She declined, saying she had too much work to do. But later she changed her mind.
She packed a basket with baked goods and gifts for the newborn child. She grabbed her broom (because the new mother would certainly need help cleaning), and tried to catch up with the Wise Men. After she had walked a long distance angels appeared to her and gave her the gift of flight. So she hopped on her broom and continued to search for the Christ Child.
Legend has it that she is still searching to this day. Every Epiphany, she visits homes throughout Italy, giving gifts to every child she finds along the way. Over time, she has come to realize that the Christ Child can be found in all children, so her search is not in vain.
I think that’s a beautiful story and a beautiful tradition. If you’re in Italy close to December 25th, you can find La Befana dolls for sale, some of which are dressed in peasant clothes and riding a broom. Unfortunately, because of the broom, other retailers simply market their leftover Halloween witches and try to pass them off as La Befana. But this betrays the heart of the story.
She is not exactly the “Christmas witch” as some call her. Instead, she is simply a hard working woman who has a change of heart and decides that finding Jesus is more important than having a clean house! So there you go! Do with it what you will!
The reason why I bring up this unusual story is that Epiphany reminds us that we are all searching for the Christ Child. Some days, like the Wise Men, he’s easy to find. We have a star and scripture to guide us to his location. Other days, like La Befana, we let the worries and responsibilities of life get the best of us. When we finally decide to seek out the Christ Child, we have a hard time finding him.
I suspect that all of us have had both experiences. There are days when we feel close to Jesus and everything feels right in our world. He walks with us and talks with us, and tells us we are his beloved. The there are other days when it feels like there is no room for the Christ Child to dwell in our lives and in our world. One bad headline after another causes us to be anxious and afraid. Our hearts become heavy with worries and responsibilities. When this happens, it’s hard for us to see Jesus’ presence in our world. But scripture tells us that he is most certainly there!
This got me to thinking about the places where the Christ Child can be seen easily. This week, I found a lot of wisdom in the Christmas sermons of Martin Luther, especially his thoughts on Herod and the Wise Men. I’d like to share a few quotes with you and see if you find them as helpful as I did.
As Luther walks his way through the Epiphany story, he says the following early on in his sermon: “When the Wise Men received the divine revelation that the King of the Jews was born, they made straight for Jerusalem, For, of course, they expected to find him at the capital in a lordly castle and a golden chamber. Where else would common sense expect to find a king?”
A little later on he puts himself in their shoes: “If I had been there, I would have stayed in the Temple and said: ‘God dwells here and if the Child is to be found anywhere in the world, it would be where all the priests are gathered and God is served.’
We may profit from the example of these heathen, who took no offense when directed from Jerusalem, the great city, to little Bethlehem. They followed the Word, and God comforted them by putting back the star, which led them now to Bethlehem to the very door where the young Child lay.”
Luther’s words remind us that sometimes it’s hard to find the Christ Child because we’re looking in the wrong place. We all have our own expectations of where Jesus is to be found and what he should be doing in our world. These expectations sometimes blind us from finding where Jesus actually is and what he is actually doing.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed people hopping from church to church, hoping to find that perfect place where Jesus is to be found. I hate to break it to you, but there is no perfect church because all of them are filled with imperfect people. This includes Abiding Savior.
The good news, is that Jesus is always found among imperfect people. The Bible is filled with stories of flawed people whom God used to do amazing things. Every church out there has flawed people through whom God can do amazing things. Therefore you are already where you need to be. You do not need to continue to search for the perfect church, because its simply not out there. If we feel like we’re having a hard time finding the place where Jesus is, I think Luther would tell us to open our eyes a little wider; to point our gaze in another direction and we will surely find him.
Thankfully, Luther has a few further ideas in his sermon regarding where the Christ Child can be found. His most profound observation occurs after the Wise Men locate the place where Jesus was born. Luther says, “If we Christians would join the Wise Men, we must close our eyes to all that glitters before the world and look rather upon the despised and foolish things, help the poor, comfort the despised, and aid the neighbor in their need.”
He goes on further to say, “We can present our gifts in the same way as the Lord says: ‘Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these who are members of my family, you have done it unto me.’
Those who give of their goods to help the poor, to send children to school, to educate them in God’s Word and other arts that we have good ministers—they are giving to the Baby Jesus. He was not only born poor and needy but also, on account of Herod, had to flee the country immediately. On the journey into Egypt the presents of the Wise Men must have come in very handy. So in our day we should not forget those who are suffering in persecution.”
And so, Luther tells us something I think we know instinctively at Abiding Savior. If we’re having a hard time locating Jesus in our world, he will always be found among the poor and oppressed. Sure, he can SOMETIMES be found among the powerful and influential, but he is ALWAYS found among the persecuted and the oppressed.
This should tell us something about where our time and energy should be spent in this new year, in this new decade. Over the past few years I’ve learned that when life seems overwhelming to me, I narrow my gaze and try to make a difference to the people and places that are right outside my doorstep. I may not be able to change the circus that is Washington DC, but I can help build a tiny house for a homeless family. I can collect supplies for Street Medics, become a better steward of my resources, and be kinder to the environment. I can write to our City Council members and continue to advocate for affordable housing. I can stand up for my neighbors whose faiths are different than mine.
Friends, on this day before Epiphany, let us leave with hope in our hearts. The Christ Child is found all around us. We simply need to have eyes to see him. May the stories of the Magi and La Befana, along with Martin Luther’s wise words, guide us on our journey. Amen.
Copyright ©2020 by David Eck