Messages from church leaders - Bishop Denis Brennan
'Put off your toiling and let love in...'
There's an Italian tradition - very popular in rural areas - with variations from place to place - of devotion to La Befana - an almost Santa Claus type female character - often portrayed with broom stick and in soot - a night time gift bringer to children - who is as associated with the Feast of the Epiphany (6th January) as St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) is with Christmas Eve here.
In ancient times, legend tells us Befana was a great housekeeper; meticulous, diligent, and attentive to every last detail.
Preoccupied with the chores that this task entailed, she passed up the opportunity to journey with the wise men who sought her help in finding the baby Jesus. She declined their invitation to journey with them, so attached she was to the demands of running her home.
Realising the depth of her loss in time, legend says that Befana now spends her time searching for the infant Jesus as the wise men had done before her, and she encourages us to do likewise.
Her primary purpose now is to visit the Christ child - to honour him with gifts - to be touched by His presence - and to encourage us all to let Divine love into our hearts and daily lives.
Befana is a cautionary tale of the dangers of being too busy in this life and of missing that which is essential.
More importantly, her message is one of finally realising what's truly vital in this life - the opening of hearts and minds to the love of God made manifest in the manger.
The legend of Befana has been reworked down the centuries but it has some obvious and familiar tailorings:
Befana is said to thump with her broom stick those who would wish to see her - obviously a device to ensure children get to sleep quickly.
As has often been said of our man in red and white - she brings candy for the good and coal for those who have shown signs of wilfulness and activity not appreciated by parents and elders - a replica tale so often heard in Irish houses on those trying days that can lead up to Christmas Day.
The message Befana brings to us is clear - 'Good people, let the bells begin. Put off your toiling and let love in.'
In offering to you one of the poems of Befana this year, I would like to take this opportunity to extend to you and to your families every kind wish and blessing over the holiday season and into the New Year.
May we be mindful of those less fortunate than ourselves and may we share our blessings with those who seek our care and assistance today and in the days ahead.
Befana the housewife, scrubbing her pane,
Saw three old sages ride down the lane,
Saw three gray travellers pass her door,
Gaspar, Balthazar and Melchior.
'Where journey you, sirs?' she asked of them.
Balthazar answered, 'To Bethlehem, For we have news of a marvelous thing, Born in a stable is Christ the King.
'Give him my welcome,'
Then Gaspar smiled,'Come with us mistress to greet the child.'
'O happily, happily would I fare, Were my dusting through, and I polished the stair.'
Old Melchior leaned on his saddle horn,
Then send but a gift to the small newborn.'
'O gladly, gladly, I'd send him one,
Were the hearthstone swept and my weaving done.'
'As soon as I've baked my bread, I'll fetch him a pillow for his head, And a coverlet too,' Befana said.
'When the rooms are aired and the linen dry, I'll look to the babe,'
But the three rode by.
She worked for a day, and a night and a day, Then, gifts in her hand, she took up her way. But she never found where the Christ Child lay.
And still she wanders at Christmastide.
Houseless, whose house was all her pride.
Whose heart was tardy, whose gifts were late,
Wanders and knocks at every gate.
Crying, 'Good people, let the bells begin.
Put off your toiling and let love in.'