EPIPHANY OF THE LORD -JANUARY 3, 2021
Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2: 1-12By: Jude Siciliano, OP
I got my first wristwatch as a Christmas present. I was eleven and felt like an adult. I really felt "mature" when someone would ask for the time; a flick of the wrist and I gave it to them. But I was still a kid and what I really liked about the watch was that it glowed in the dark. When I would put the watch up to a lamp and then turn off the light, the face of the watch glowed for a few minutes. You could tell the time in the dark! How cool was that!
Eventually, whatever light the watch "captured" on its chemically-treated dial, faded. (We used to think the numerals and hands were painted in radium and that was why it glowed in the dark. I doubt the Atomic Energy Commission dispensed radium to children’s watch manufacturers to make glow-in-the-dark watches.) The watch required a direct light source in order for it to work its magic for me. After it faded in the dark the watch needed to be placed close to the light so that it would once again glow when the lights were turned off – for a while.
I am reminded of that watch as I hear the Isaiah reading today, the feast of the Epiphany. In our tradition the new liturgical year begins with Advent. But the celebration of the Epiphany antedates that of Christmas and for some Christian churches Epiphany begins the church year. Along with Christmas and next week’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Epiphany is a feast of God’s manifestation; God provides the light for people in the dark and those upon whom it shines "glow" when they receive it.
Today the magi, usually associated with wisdom, come close to the light, do homage and are illumined by what they see. Their lives are altered, or as Matthew puts it, "They departed for their country by another way." We can’t follow the same old ways once we have seen ourselves and the world by God’s light.
The Isaiah reading sounds as if people have just emerged from darkness. A light has been switched on for them – "Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines on you." It’s wake-up time for those who have lived in the gloom of the shadow of death. A call goes out to those laid low – "Rise up in splendor."
What’s the reason for this call? Where did the light in the dark come from? Certainly not from the people’s ingenuity, or initiative. "It’s dark in here, let’s turn on the lights." No way! The darkness is profound, it is likened to the one that "covered the abyss" (Gen. 1:2) before the creation. Only God can create a light that can enter such darkness. The prophet reminds us that the darkness still lingers, "See, darkness covers the earth and thick clouds cover the peoples" But that’s not the end of it.
God will not let darkness reign supreme. "See...upon you the Lord shines." For believers there is light, for God is coming upon us to pierce the darkness of our sin and ignorance with a light to direct the steps of our long journey together. But with the gift comes responsibility. Others will walk by the light we have received. Like those watches, a light shines on us and we "glow" – then our responsibility is to reflect God’s light for others so they can tell what time it is in their darkness.
Isaiah is anticipating the restoration of Jerusalem – a deed that the Israelites could only accomplish with God’s help. And what a spectacle that will be! The crumbled city will "rise up" out of the darkness and others – the Gentiles – will see by this new light and be drawn to it. All the world will come to see that no one is an outsider to our God; no one people are better than any others. Someone has turned on a light and those who once dwelled in darkness can now see an open door.
They approach, enter and are welcomed by others upon whom the light has shone. That was the experience of the Magi: the "outsiders" saw a light that led them to an open door, "...on entering the house they saw the child with Mary, his mother. The prostrated themselves and did him homage."
[This is the season when I read T.S. Eliot’s poetic tale, "Journey of the Magi," which begins, "A cold coming we had of it." One of the Magi, the narrator, asks the question, "...were we led all that way for Birth or Death?" If you want to read it for yourself:
The year is very new and there still is much darkness on the horizon. We look at the days and months in front of us and wonder about how those suffering the results of the pandemic will fare. Will the vaccine do what we hope it will: end the spread of the virus? There is more darkness than that in our world: racism, economic disparity, terrorism in Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia, millions of refugees and migrants, etc. When will peace rule peoples’ hearts? Isaiah and the Magi remind us God will not abandon us, but will shine light on our dark winter days. Will all things get better immediately? Hardly! But the Magi represent those of us following the God-provided light. It shines on the "insiders" and the "outsiders." A way has been illumined, a path has been shown us and we must continue to live by the light we have seen.
We pray at this Eucharist, in person or online, for clear minds, courageous hearts and the perseverance to stay on the path Jesus has manifested to us: the way of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. If his is the path we follow, we too will shine in the darkness and be guides to others, to help them find their way home to a land and a people of light bearers.
The Magi did not unload their camels, dismiss their porters and settle down in Bethlehem to continue their homage to the Christ child. Matthew makes it sound as if they did homage to the child, quickly got up off their knees and then moved on. Maybe they went home to tell their families and friends about their journey and how the star guided them through the nights – you can’t see stars when there is plenty of light. Maybe we shouldn’t be terrified by the darkness in our world and our lives because, if God is true to form, a light will appear in the dark and keep us on track as we travel together.
These Christmas-time stories may be about angelic visitations, pregnancy and birth. But Matthew is also proposing the fuller gospel to us: the God of salvation is acting on our behalf and we are invited to respond with lives transformed by grace. Already there are hints of both acceptance and rejection of "the newborn king of the Jews." Epiphany is not the end of the story – it is just the beginning for us. What difference will what is manifested to us today make in our lives? Will we accept the one who not only lies in a manger as a newborn, but will also be rejected? Throughout this liturgical year we will hear Jesus’ preaching, observe his works, follow him to his death and then experience his resurrection. It will be a year of many epiphanies for us.
As we leave church and the crib scene today we have confidence that no darkness we face can put out the light that burns within us. Hear Isaiah’s promise, "Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow." Shall we resolve to continually turn toward the light we have seen, bow down to worship and then carry the light again into the world?
The Magi’s quest reminds us that throughout our lives we are continually searching for God. We can never settle back into a comfortable piety and complacency, even though we feel we have "found God." There is more up ahead – pack up and keep searching.
We need to also respect the journey of sincere others; even when their way differ from ours. The truth is too big for any of us to claim to have it all. God can not be grasped totally in my two hands, no matter how big they are. Let’s kneel and do homage today to the eternal and holy One who comes to us in the form of a child, but then grows into adulthood to invite us to follow the One we call, the Light of the World.
Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: