A reflection on Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; and Matthew 2:15-21.
Happy New Year. Happy Epiphany. And Merry Christmas – as it is still Christmastide until January 6th, the actual date for Epiphany and the traditional end of Christmas as we remember the magi arriving with their gifts for the Christ child.
There is a lot going on in our readings (The Revised Common Lectionary readings for the Epiphany) and probably in our hearts and minds as we continue to enjoy Christmas and all its joys, as we start another new year with hopefully at least some sense of new beginnings. And given the evening news and the Bible readings set for Epiphany there is also some dark trouble brooding. You may have felt some of it in the moments of disappointment and hurt that is often part of Christmas. If you have dared to watch or listen to the news you will have felt the dark and sad news that Christmas has not been able to overcome.
So let us explore the interplay of light and dark that Epiphany is all about. Epiphany is an ancient word that literally means the light, which is one of the ways Christmas has always been understood – the light has come into the world. It is a word which has re-entered common usage and people talk of having an epiphany, meaning they have come to see things in a new light, or they have understood things from a new perspective.
Our readings suggest at least three things about epiphanies that I think is worth reflecting on. Firstly that the spiritual journey has often and for a long time been expressed as a search for the light. Secondly that no matter how much we say we want the light when it comes it stirs up the darkness and there is a reaction against it, a push back, and a resistance at all levels of society and the individual person. And thirdly that having seen the light ones way of seeing things and living is forever changed.
The prophet Isaiah reminds us that this longing for the light is deep and ancient and operates for us as a people, a society, and for individual persons. We see this at the political, social, and scientific levels as we try to grow in the direction of the light as a society – to become more just, more advanced, more healthy. I’m sure it’s part of why some of us still make New Year’s resolutions, with much enthusiasm I have to confess, despite how many times we’ve failed before. There is an expectation of ourselves that we develop as humans in a direction that is upward, or deeper, or toward the light.
But the story from the gospel of Matthew suggests that the response to the light is not what you might expect. The chosen people had expressed this desire for the holy one, the Messiah, to be born and yet when he was born the response of King Herod and all Jerusalem with him, was of fear and resistance. Now there is a lot going on in this reading and it is worth noting that only Matthew’s gospel records these events and the subsequent destruction and suffering. It is an important part of how Matthew presents the life events of Jesus and the parallels that this gospel draws between Jesus and the Old Testament greats such as Moses and therefore how important it is that Jesus is taken by his parents into Egypt so that he can come out of there later. It is part of the great story of liberation that is coming to fulfilment in the person of Jesus. It begins here at his birth and will come to fulfilment when he shares his last earthly meal at the Festival of Passover and declares himself the Pascal Lamb.
It is also a political and social truth that the status quo, the current holders of power and influence, do not like new kings – even cute baby ones – and certainly not potential leaders. Just look at politicians or sports heroes, at how many who start with such good intentions end up doing whatever it takes to stay in power and in the spotlight.
And what about at the individual level? Don’t we, if we are ruthlessly honest, find change – even much desired change – very difficult to live with? We want to retire but then struggle with the direction the company or profession goes after we are not there. We are delighted our young ones are now adult but we are very wary if not outright critical of the priorities they have and the methods of achieving them. We wanted this new relationship but who would have thought so much baggage and shadow would come with it! The list of examples is long. The desire for the light is great but it is not easy or smooth sailing. We want to be more like Christ but we hate surrendering our will and we are so uncomfortable and afraid of the suffering that the path of following invariably will lead us into at some point. We want the light filled destination but we do not want to surrender control of our own lives.
But do not despair too much for having glimpsed the light, even as a moving star on the horizon, we are changed for we become restless with the old way of seeing and being. Having seen the star a part of us cannot help but pursue it. And having glimpsed the Christ child in the manger we are forever changed. The glimpse of how things truly are and how they might be seems to light a spark within us and although fires burn greater with fuel and oxygen, even the untended spark within seems to begin its sacred work of stirring up desire for what is life giving and divine seeking.
And so I hope it is for all of us who have adoringly or casually or just a little curiously looked in the manger, that having glimpsed the divine in human flesh, we see things differently. Maybe this Christmas we have understood more fully than before that because of Christmas all flesh is sacred – human, animal, material – and therefore how we live and interact with all other life forms is either sacred or a desecration of life. Maybe we have glimpsed that the light can be born in even the most ordinary and humble of places and persons and that what we seek is therefore under our very noses. Maybe in this dark story we have realised that birth and death or not so separate and while sobering it is hope filling.
Let Christmas percolate in you. Let the New Year unfold in you. Let Epiphany shine a new and different light on the issues of your life. And then make your way to your true home by whatever road is life giving.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come.