La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col cappello alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!
Across Italy, children awoke this morning to find gifts of toys and candy, and fearful to discover only coal, left by la Befana. In Italian lore, this broom-riding old woman covered in soot and topped with a hat alla romana, brings gifts to the children of Italy, even as does Santa Claus or the Christ Child, or even the Magi themselves, for others. According to the legend, Befana was the best housekeeper in her village, and so she was approached by the Magi on their way to visit in the infant Christ. While she was more than happy to put them up for the night and allow them to enjoy her hospitality, when they asked her to accompany them to see the Christ, she demurred, insisting that she had to attend to her housework. After the Magi had left, she reconsidered, and set off to find them and the promised Messiah, but to no avail. So, the still travels the world, riding atop the broom with which she kept house, hoping every year that the child who receives her gifts on Epiphany Eve will be the Christ.
Whatever we make of the tradition of la Befana, we do well to heed both the warning and the hope bound up in this story. Not, of course, the warning and hope of carboni or caramelle, of coal or candy. Rather, Befana is for us a sign of the possibilities, as well as the limits, of an earthly hope for the Savior.
In the Gospel, we see two other models: Herod and the Magi. In Herod we find one who seeks God only to destroy him, clinging more firmly to his earthly power and finding in God not the answer to his longing, but rather a threat to all he has come to hold dear. In the Magi, we see those who are willing to cast aside everything that have known of God and the world and to honor, in even his most humble and vulnerable of manifestations, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Herod's hardness deprives him of what he most desires; the Magi's costly journey and even costlier gifts find a reward beyond their wildest imaginings.
Most of us, however, find ourselves neither in the hardened fear of Herod nor in the enlightened hope of the Magi. We are neither believers who have turned ourselves definitively against the very things which the God whom we profess to believe had promised, nor are we unbelievers ready on the basis of even a glimmer of the glorious majesty of God Most High to cast aside our ignorance and bow in adoration of the Word made flesh. We are, all too often, like la Befana. We are believers, good and virtuous, ready to provide a helping hand and kindness even to strangers. However, we are also busy with our own affairs, at risk of discovering, all too late, that even the best of earthly kindness has no home outside this world. Like la Befana's yearly gift-giving, mere earthly kindness and generosity is at one and the same time a sign of hope to those who receive it, yet a sign of frustration for those who hope in it alone.
We have, in the end, no other journey save the journey of the Magi. There is no hope in Herod's wicked craving for earthly power and glory. Neither is there hope in la Befana's providing the best the world can give, but nonetheless cleaving more closely to this world than the next. It is only in the Magi's radical offering of the best this world has to offer from the best knowledge the world has to guide, and even then having no shame to journey far and at the cost of all they knew and loved, to bend their knee to an infant in a manger alongside ox and ass, shepherd and sheep — only there, on our knees in the straw with nothing left to give, do we find in the infant Jesus the God whom the world cannot contain.
Why, impious Herod, shouldst thou fear
Because the Christ is come so near?
He Who doth heavenly kingdoms grant
Thine earthly realm can never want.