Delivered on 3 January 2015 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Once upon a time, there once was an old lady named Old Befana. She lived alone in small house on the outskirts of a small village. Not terribly friendly was she. Whenever people dared to knock at her door, never did she let them in. “I have no time for visiting,” were always her words. And if you ask the children what they thought of her, they either said, “She’s cranky,” or “All she wants to do is sweep with her broom!”
And that was true—sweep, sweep, sweep, in the morning and in the afternoon. Her house, her front step, and the walk out to the road. When she wasn’t sweeping, she was baking. Everyone could smell the delicious things baking in her house. “But whom does she bake for?” people would always wonder. And when she wasn’t sweeping or baking, she was singing what sounded to everyone like lullabies. “But whom does she sing for?” people would always wonder.
And it came one evening, after Old Befana had her dinner and finished her sweeping, that she readied herself for bed. She locked the door and shuttered the windows. Into bed she climbed, blowing out the lamp, and asleep she fell.
In the middle of the night, Old Befana woke up. The room was bright. “What’s all this?” she asked. “The lamp is still out,” she said, “and the windows shuttered. Yet all my house is full of light!” And when she walked to the other side of her house to open the shutter, in flowed light upon light, pouring into her room. In the eastern sky she saw a brilliant star, seeming to grow before her eyes. “Harumph!” said Old Befana, closing the shutter as tightly as she could. “How will I ever sleep with all this light!” And sleep she did not; tossing and turning all night long.
The next morning it was back to her normal routine. She ate her breakfast, and then, as she always did, she began sweeping—sweep, sweep, sweep. Her house, her front step, and the walk out to the road. Yet when she got to the road, she stopped and listened. It was bells, tinkling. “Oh it is probably just the wind,” she said. Sweep, sweep, sweep. Yet again, she heard bells. “Oh, I bet it’s the birds singing.” Sweep, sweep, sweep. But once more, it was bells. “My old ears play tricks.” Sweep, sweep—
Suddenly, over the hill, came the most glorious procession Old Befana had ever seen. Camels, horses, elephants, and people—so many people, something splendid! And about halfway back there were particularly royal-looking men, with jeweled robes and what seemed like crowns on their heads. They stopped. Down came the kings, and they walked up to a frowning Befana. One of them said, “Please, which way to Jerusalem?” “Eh?” said Old Befana, “never heard of it.” The second said, “We are searching for the child. Do you know of him?” Befana said, “There are many children,” and she swept and swept. And said the third, “But this one is a King.” Befana said, “I know nothing of royal matters.” Yet he continued, “Our maps have told us,” he said, “that when the bright planet appears from behind the moon, a bright star, the Child King will be born.” “The star I have seen!” said Befana. “It kept me awake all night. Yet do excuse me, I have work to do.”
As she turned, the procession started up again. “Old woman,” called a young girl, “You should come with us. This Child, this Baby King, has come to change the world. He comes for us. He comes for the poor. We are bringing him gifts.” Old Befana paused. She watched the procession wind down the road. “Huh, a Child King,” she muttered. “Jerusalem . . .” and yet she swept, and swept and swept. Yet she talked to herself. “Coming to change the world. Coming for the poor.” Sweep, sweep. “Well, heaven knows, Befana is poor.” Sweep, sweep. “Gifts; only a child.”
Old Befana went back into her house. “Perhaps I should go see him . . . But what do I have to take to him?” She put down her broom. She got out some butter, and sugar and flour. She blew on the fire and added some wood. And she began to sing. She baked all day. She didn’t even sweep. It was almost dark when she finished. A basket was filled with all the cakes, cookies, and candies she had made. “I’ll take a few coals in a little pot to keep the cookies warm,” she said.
She grabbed her shawl and opened the door. “And I’ll take along my broom, to sweep the room clean, for the Baby King’s mother will be tired.” Old Befana stopped for she realized she had not swept for at least three hours. “Oh this won’t take long,” she said. She put down the basket and began to sweep. Sweep, sweep, sweep: her house, her front step, and the walk out to the road.
Then she locked the door, gathered up her basket, pulled her shawl around her and took up her broom. Old Befana was on her way at last. First she ran, and ran and ran, as fast as her legs would carry her. The sun was set, yet she still ran, for the Star again shone brightly to the East of the moon. And then her breath came short, her old legs began to ache—O but still she ran, now a little bit slower. At last she had to sit beside the road. She could run no more. “O, I should have left earlier. Now I will never catch up. And where is Jerusalem?” She closed her eyes, and gave a long sigh: “I will never find the Baby King.”
Suddenly the sky was filled ever more with light, and heavenly angels sang. “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” Old Befana rose to her feet. “Tell me! Tell me where He is,” she cried picking up her basket and broom. “I bring gifts to the child!”
She began to walk. Then run again. “Glory to God in the highest,” sang the angels once more. “Wait!” she shouted. “You must help me. Show me the way to Jerusalem!” Old Befana began to feel lighter. She ran faster and faster, so fast it took her breath away. She was running in the sky!
Old Befana never caught up, alas. She never found the Child that night. But she is still searching, to this day. Every year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, Old Befana runs across the sky. She visits children while they sleep, and leaves them gifts from her basket. Then she takes her broom and sweeps the room all clean. “For, after all,” says Old Befana, “I never know which child might be the Baby King of Jerusalem.”
And so with a profound nod to artist and writer Tomie dePaola, from whom this story is adapted, I invite you to join me in prayer:
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the Peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Image: “Byzantine icon of Nativity (Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens)” taken by Ricardo André Frantz is licenced under CC BY 2.0. Resized from original.