I’ve been thinking about presents. After all, it’s Epiphany week, and in my house Epiphany always meant a visit from the Befana.
The Befana, for those who don’t know, is a legendary old woman who brings gifts to Italian (and Italian-American) children on the feast of the Epiphany, a sort of Signora Santa Claus. According to legend, the Befana was a particularly fussy housekeeper who lived along the route taken by the three kings on their journey to worship the baby Jesus. When the Magi stopped at the Befana’s house, they offered to let her tag along and visit the newborn Messiah, but she claimed to have too much housework to do and declined. Only after the Magi had left town did the Befana regret her decision and hurry to catch up… but by then it was too late, and the wise men were out of sight. Since that first Epiphany she has been leaving presents for the children of every home she visits in the hope that one of them will turn out to be the Christ child.
I’ve also been thinking about presents because of an exhibit I recently visited at Chicago’s Field Museum. The exhibit was about gold. Of all the commodities Melchior, Balthasar, and Caspar came bringing, the only one which seems to have held up in market value is gold. I’m afraid I wouldn’t know what to do if I found a box of myrrh under the tree, but gold would be nice, especially in today’s economy.
Gold, I learned at the Field Museum, has many unique properties. It does not tarnish or rust. It is found in small quantities throughout the world, on every habitable continent. And, of course, it shines brilliantly. There are other qualities too—gold is a great conductor of electricity and can be pounded into sheets mere microns thick—but these first three made me think about how appropriate it is that gold should show up time and again in religious rites.
The Catholic Church, for example, mandates that the vessels used at Mass be gilded, hardly a surprise given the metal’s prominent role in temple worship and elsewhere throughout the Bible. No other metal is worthy to plate the Ark of the Covenant or to give to the newborn Messiah—not even (sorry, Ezekiel) electrum. Whatever that is.
What I learned in the Field Museum about the mining process used to extract gold from the earth added a new layer to the metal’s potential for religious symbolism. Images of the California Gold Rush notwithstanding, gold very rarely appears in nuggets. Instead it appears in tiny grains, little larger than flakes of dust, hidden in larger chunks of stone. At most, the eye might catch only a hint of the precious metal hidden in such a chunk of unremarkable earth, and more than likely the gold inside will be entirely invisible. Yet miners find it worthwhile to dig up many square meters of such rock and subject it to a laborious refinement process in order to extract only a few grains of gold powder. The process itself might be a metaphor for finding the kingdom of heaven and, in fact, bears a striking resemblance to the parable Jesus told about the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:44-50). How fitting, then, that a metal searched out and refined in such a way should be used to hold that substance infinitely more precious than any earthly thing, the holy Eucharist.
Of course, before we get carried away in a gold rush of our own, it’s worth noting that more than a few people have gone more than a little mad for love of gold. When it comes to liturgy one can easily imagine getting carried away with gold and other shiny things, and Church documents often speak of “noble simplicity” as the aesthetic ideal toward which we strive. As with all the objects used at Mass, the point of gold chalices and patens is to draw attention to the Eucharist rather than distract from it.
In fact, one of the most interesting nuances in the Church’s regulations regarding the materials from which sacred vessels are to be made is the insistence that if such vessels are made from a metal less precious than gold, then they should be gilded on the inside. How appropriate that is, the recognition that at the celebration of the Eucharist what is unseen is often more important than outer appearances. The Mass, after all, is not a show or a performance. A friend of mine noted to me recently that at Mass—and in so much else in life—those things we don’t notice turn out to be most important. Another friend, who is a priest, once showed me a tabernacle that was richly decorated with Biblical scenes—on the inside. What an expression of faith such an object is, and what a challenge to our everyday ways of thinking. I’ve argued before, in a slightly different way, that it’s the subtlety, the hidden rhythms and richness of liturgy that move us beyond a utilitarian outlook toward a deeper—more human and more divine—way of being.
This season is an especially appropriate time to seek that deeper way of being, as we contemplate the Magi’s worship of God-with-us. It’s a paradox of the Epiphany that even though the Magi came bringing gifts, the privilege they were granted, the opportunity to worship the true God, is itself an even greater gift.
Worshipping God—even a stocking full of gold doesn’t beat that.
As an aside, the Befana was not fooled when the USCCB transferred Epiphany to Sunday and still visits on January 6. So, even if you’re not Italian, you can still celebrate the Epiphany all week.