For the feast of the Epiphany Matthew’s gospel tells us of the coming of the Magi, mysterious visitors from afar seeking the new-born King of the Jews.
Years ago I studied in Rome and one course took me down into the Christian catacombs, where early Christians buried their dead in long underground corridors cut in soft stone. They usually scratched the name of the deceased on the burial place along with a little symbol or prayer expressing their hope and their faith. Sometimes they would also have a picture from the bible drawn or painted onto the wall.
In the catacombs of Priscilla one 3rd century grave belongs to a Roman woman named Severa. Her simple profile appears on her grave with an inscription that reads, “Severa, may you live with God.”
Next to the inscription are figures of the three Magi coming with their gifts to the little Child sitting on Mary’s lap. Over the Child is a star, and behind him is the figure of a man who is probably Balaam, the prophet who said that a star would announce a new king in Judea. (Numbers 24,15-19)
Severa believed that this Child brought the promise of eternal life, not only to the Jews symbolized by the shepherds tending their sheep in the Bethlehem hills. The Child brought eternal life to her and foreigners like her. The Magi brought him gifts, but they returned to their faraway lands with a gift far beyond what they brought him.
I wonder if Severa was baptized on the feast of the Epiphany. It’s the oldest of the Christmas feasts and was a day besides Easter when people were baptized in Rome and the western church. If she were baptized then, what was she told? Follow the light God gives you on your journey through life. Always follow the light. However small it is, however far it calls you to go, however it might seem contradicted by what the world around you says. Sometimes it may not seem to be there at all, but it will be there again. There’s a star guiding us through life.
The earliest representations of the Magi picture them of different ages. One old, one middle-aged, one young. Follow the light that’s given you all through your life.
The Apostles’ Creed we say at Mass was a summary of the faith Severa was taught when she was baptized. This world is God’s world, who created it and calls it to evolve to its destiny. Jesus Christ is God’s Son, born of Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose from the dead.
She came to believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
If Severa heard the story of Herod the Great, the powerful king in our gospel story, she would surely be reminded of the powerful, often paranoid emperors, who ruled in Rome then. But Severa followed Jesus Christ, more powerful than them all.
“Severa, may we live with you in God.”