Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
Readings: Isaiah 60:1–6; Psalm 71 (72):1–2, 7–8, 10–13; Ephesians 3:2–3, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12
3 January 2021
“Above you the Lord now rises and above you his glory appears.” – Isaiah 60:3
“If I had the chance to begin again, I would be resolved to do it better.” That is a common human desire. At this time of the year, a lot of people make New Year’s resolutions. In regard to our faith, we often resolve to take up or renew a particular spiritual discipline. These resolutions are important as some things will never happen unless we resolve to make them happen.
But perhaps the best way to make a change in one’s life is not through personal resolve. We have probably all tried that, and come up empty. We sometimes attribute more goodness to ourselves than we possess because we are good intentioned, and so we make excuses for our bad behaviour. We say: “I meant to do better,” or “I didn’t intend that to happen.” Scripture is realistic about the inadequacy of our good intentions. This is why the story of redemption is about God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
The prophet Isaiah writes about the Jews making their pilgrimage to Jerusalem after they have experienced a lengthy exile. He imagines all the people of the earth making this pilgrimage to the light: “Arise, shine out, your light has come, the glory of the Lord is rising on you” (Is 60:1). We need to hear this—the light has come. We cannot generate for ourselves the light that we need. It has come to us. Grace is God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
There is always the chance to begin again, no matter what we have done, no matter what the world has done to us. Grace and forgiveness are always available. There is always the possibility of new life.
Lord, work with us and in us, to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Amen.
Fr Sean Cullen
Adoration of the Magi – Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)
“Adoration of the Magi”, (c. 1617–18). Oil on canvas, 245 x 325 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, France. Public Domain.
One of the greatest artists of the Counter-Reformation was Peter Paul Rubens, so named because he was born on the solemnity of those two apostles, 29 June 1577. In Antwerp, at the age of 13, he became a page in the court of a local countess, but found the life stifling and decided to begin training as an artist. He then set out for Italy and then Spain to see for himself the great Renaissance and classical works he knew from copies. He returned to Antwerp after the death of his mother, but his reputation had preceded him, and in 1609, at the age of 33, he was appointed court painter to the rulers of the Netherlands, the Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella.
He could now afford a grand house in a fashionable part of Antwerp, and built a large studio to accommodate his pupils and assistants—he received too many commissions to complete them all single-handedly. His major business was altarpieces, suitable for an artist who enjoyed working on a grand scale. Interestingly, he played an important diplomatic role in 17th-century European politics. Painters often had reason to travel to foreign courts, and so he was well placed to carry out delicate visits without arousing suspicion. He was knighted by both Phillip IV of Spain and Charles I of England. Rubens died on 30 May 1640 having suffered painfully from gout for several years.
The Adoration of the Magi was painted around the year 1618, and is now housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon in France. Because it is horizontal rather than vertical, it is thought to have been commissioned for a private collection rather than as an altarpiece. It gained Rubens considerable fortune because it was continually reproduced in engravings and tapestries. The style of the work is typically Rubens—dark scenes with a powerful spread of light across the canvas bringing key elements into focus. Only Caravaggio and Rembrandt can claim to be as famous for their use of dramatic lighting as this Flemish master. The light seems to go from left to right, until it highlights Mother and Child.
Mary is in an attitude of presenting Jesus to the Magi, just as she previously presented him to the shepherds. Thus, East and West are represented at the crib. Mary is the Mother of Unity. Rubens includes a subtlety. The Magi are strewn right across the painting in descending order, each man a different age, representing the three ages of man. Old age has found the goal of life—Christ himself.
What endeared me to this scene when I saw it last year was the Child’s attitude. The Infant responds to the Magi’s veneration by patting the old man’s head (the laying on of hands is common in some of the sacraments.) It is a comforting sign of how close the Saviour wishes to be to us. He is truly Emmanuel: “God-with-us”. Before such condescension, we can only bow in adoration. And, “Without adoration, there can be no transformation of the world,” wrote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, The Heart Of Life. The life of the creature must be one of adoration. Notice the look on the child beside the old man—a look of wonder at obvious royalty genuflecting before a baby and kissing his foot.
Rubens contrasts the lowliness of the manger not only with the sumptuousness of the garments of the visitors from far away—fur-trimmed cloaks, brocade and damask—but the goblet filled with gold coins sitting in the straw. We never come to God with empty hands. We give him whatever we have—it won’t necessarily be gold, but the wealth of our love.
At the very centre of the painting, and practically hidden, is a small boy looking out at us. He holds a vessel of myrrh. The journey of man, symbolised by the Magi’s long trek, necessarily ends in death. But the goal, as we have seen, is Christ. He stands in a manger, a food-box for animals, for he is the Food of eternal life. It is St Luke who mentions the manger, and he must have had in mind a Eucharistic theme. Hence the English word we use for this season, Christmas—Christ’s Mass. The crowd in the background, including a soldier, simply represent us. Christ has come to save all.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer
Fr Sean Cullen is the parish priest of St Thomas Aquinas Parish in Bowral, St Michael’s Parish in Mittagong and the administrator of Holy Family Parish in Ingleburn. He was ordained in 1984 and has served in a number of parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. Over the years, he has undertaken various diocesan roles including vocations director, master of ceremonies, chair of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission and member of the Council of Priests. He is currently the diocesan episcopal vicar for clergy.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer recently retired as the parish priest at Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years, he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Fr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.