Epiphany: A lightbulb moment. A parish church. A cake, a tradition. People going down to a snowy river in Russia to renew their baptismal promises in the freezing waters. The other Christmas. Magi, wise men, kings; gold, frankincense, myrrh; Herod and his horror story. Twelfth nights, feasts of lights, Epiphany. A small Greek word which hides a world of traditions and imaginings, stories and symbols in its short syllables.
In popular dramatic stories there is often a prophecy which may or may not be about to come true: think the Matrix, think Harry Potter. If the prophecy is fulfilled in the presence of those witnessing the story, the world will be changed, the whole world order will be altered, and the hero of the story will rise vindicated. If not, everyone will look a little bit foolish.
Isaiah prophesies the coming of the light to the people of God. Arise, shine; for your light has come. He speaks of camel trains coming with the wealth of nations, kings streaming to the brightness of the light which will emanate out of Zion. They will bring gold, and frankincense.
Isaiah doesn’t mention myrrh.
Herod would have known enough of his Bible to remember these prophesies when the wise men came. He was terrified, because he knew that in the stories, the prophecy is always fulfilled, and the old authorities always suffer defeat and defamation when it is, and the whole world order is changed: the proud are scattered in the imaginations of their hearts, the hungry are fed, and the rich are sent empty away. Herod was rich; he did not want to be sent away empty.
Herod tried to be cunning, to pretend to fall in with the plans of the wise men, to pretend that good news for his people was good news for him (little did he know that that was, in fact the truth). He tried to outsmart the wise ones, to outgun the angels, to undo the words spoken by the prophets,
“Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice,” and replace them with laments.
What did Herod think would happen? What did he think that he could achieve? Did he truly believe that by trampling the ten commandments underfoot he could obliterate the law of God? Did he think that by eating the words of the prophets and spitting them back out as curses that he could change God’s mind, God’s promises to God’s people? Did he think that by hiding behind his fear he could trick God into fearing to visit the light upon God’s people, that by spreading a cloak of darkness and deep gloom across the land, that vale of tears, he could smother and snuff out the light?
What he did, instead, was to throw into sharp relief the light of God’s salvation as against the status quo of oppression, abuse of power, and the strength of greed and violence. The moon never looks so bright in the daytime as it does on a dark, deep midnight.
The star has already arrived over the city of Bethlehem, and the wise men have completed their journey; they have offered their gold, their frankincense, their myrrh. Interestingly, they were not tempted to hang around to find out what happened next with this remarkable child that they had travelled so long and so far to find. They simply dropped off their gifts and left, going home by another road.
“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn;” but they did not stay, even though the work is not over; the end is just beginning – we know where the Christ child is born, we know where he grows up, what he teaches, what he preaches, how he lives, how he dies, how he is raised. We know that the prophecies are true and have been fulfilled in our presence. So what happens next?
For Herod there is fury, outrage, atrocities.
For the wise men, there is the long journey home. Do they ever hear the news that comes out of Judea? Do they ever wonder what happened to the family to whom they gave all that gold, and frankincense, and myrrh? Has their journey changed them, or do they simply go back to their books and their charts and their academic pursuits?
For Mary and Joseph and the child there is another journey, into Egypt, to escape the coming storm.
And what of the star? Does it still shine in the darkness, or has it burned itself out by the rising of the sun in the east?
We have come, it seems, to a crossroads in the story. We have to choose which path to follow: to worship briefly, then return home unchanged, uplifted but ultimately the same as ever, excited to have found the baby king, but untempted to stay and see his life unfold.
Or we can run away, follow the holy family into Egypt, keep our heads down, stay close but draw no attention to ourselves, in case the fury of the forces that be are visited upon us, wait, bide our time against the injustice that we hear and see around us, waiting for a better time to come to pass.
I do not think that we want to follow Herod. I do not think that we want to follow Herod; but I know that the danger of institutions is to value the status quo more than the journey into the light; to value status more than justice; to value stability more than salvation.
When the Pharaoh did his similar thing with the young children of the Hebrews in the days of Moses, there was an underground resistance movement, led by the midwives, who secreted as many children as they could, who by their gentle subversion saved many lives. Then, there was Moses, who albeit by accident infiltrated the corridors of power and ended up challenging the authorities from the inside, eventually standing before Pharaoh and in a faltering but firm voice ordering, “Let my people go.” There are always those who are willing to stay, to stand up against the darkness, to shine a light on injustice, to put the spotlight on oppression and make it sweat, who work by the light of the night sky, like the midwives, or in the bright glare of the palace, like Moses, to set God’s people free.
But for people like us, with our palatial church buildings and our strong social standing, the Episcopal Church, with its National Cathedral and its historic presence, we would be wise to be vigilant against the decay of our zeal for justice for the poor, the marginalized, those denied the rights that others of us enjoy, those cast off to fend for themselves when the bottom falls out of their world. We would be wise to guard against the petrifying of our longing for peace, the righteous indignation that accompanies outrages against innocents, the pursuit of a more peace-loving, gentle society. We would be wise to seek guidance to avoid the digression of our pilgrimage towards the kingdom of God and fuel to prevent the dimming of our light.
We are named the Church of the Epiphany, and the Epiphany is the coming to light of God among us, God’s salvation for all peoples, God’s glory. That is what we are called to show forth, not only today but all of the time, and it is a tremendous privilege and an awesome responsibility.
But before we become overwhelmed by the weight of such glory, let’s consider whose Epiphany we celebrate. This Epiphany, this making manifest the divine among us, is not ours. Herod could not thwart God’s purpose, and we, fortunately, cannot hide or turn off God’s epiphany, God’s light; even if we close our eyes, it will still be there, shining like a beacon of hope in the darkness. It is not a lightbulb, ahah moment when we finally see the light. It is not the dawning realization of three amateur astronomers that something is funky with the night sky. It is not the fearful reckoning of an ancient prophecy. It is not getting just the right evangelism strategy or bright idea for a five-year parish plan. It is God’s light shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
We are named the Church of the Epiphany, and the Epiphany is the coming to light of God among us, God’s salvation for all peoples, God’s glory, Jesus, the Son of God, God made manifest in the particular person born in a poor stable in Bethlehem, and adored by the magi, who brought him gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, God who has blessed us by coming among us, by loving us, by leading us toward the light. Thanks be to God.