Light in Our Darkness
“Arise, shine, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee” (Isaiah 60:1-3).
Darkness will spread; the Lord will arise. Few verses portray so strikingly the paradox of our Lord’s coming. Epiphany is saturated in paradox. Darkness, death, and sorrow occur at every instance. Yet, in that darkness, God’s redemption is piercing. Our losses are imbued with joy, because God has come.
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:1).
Jesus, Herod, the wise men, the Epiphany Gospel says everything at the start. Jesus is born. When is he born? During the reign of Herod, in an evil time, “as darkness covers the earth.” And right there, in that darkness, the star shines and the magi arrive.
The magi are fascinating. Of all characters in Holy Scripture they stand out. The bulk of the Old Testament is about the Israelites — the sons of Abraham, set aside forever as the people of God. Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, King David reigns, Solomon reigns, and their story unfolds, waiting for a Messiah. The Messiah comes, and who shows up? The magi.
Western tradition has long assumed there were three magi. Scripture is silent here. Some eastern traditions refer to twelve magi, or a multitude, including traveling companions and servants. We can discern a little about the magi because of their name. Magi comes from the Greek, ‘μάγος,’ a derivative from the Old Persian ‘maguŝ,’ which referred to a priestly caste of Zoroastrians. These priests studied the stars, and were known for magic and prophecy. The word is sometimes translated as ‘magician’ or ‘sorcerer.’ It is not usually mentioned in a positive light. Indeed, the law referred to the magicians as condemned and abominable.
Why is this so important? God called out his followers even from the thick of the darkness of the world. The magi were part of a wicked society. They dappled in the occult. They represent a broken and degenerate culture. They are so much like you and me.
Nihilism, despair, worldliness, woke and heartbreak…what adjectives can you think of to describe our culture today? The young adults, children, and lost generation that has grown up in divorce and broken families. There is so much confusion. This is the world from which the magi came. Yet, in this world, God does not abandon us. He redeems and heals everyone whose heart is reaching out.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
The message of the magi is this. God come comes down to our level, wherever we are, in whatever state he finds us, and he says, “Here I am. Come adore me.”
Now, it is not enough that we follow Christ. We must offer him the right gifts.
“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:10-11).
In the sixth century, St. Gregory preached about the magis’ gifts. Each represents precisely what we owe God.
“By gold wisdom is symbolized…by frankincense, which is burnt before God, the power of prayer is symbolized…by myrrh is typified the mortification of the flesh. To the New Born King we offer the gold, if in His sight we shine with the light of wisdom. We offer incense when by the fervor of our prayer we offer up that which is agreeable to Him. We offer myrrh when by abstinence we mortify the vices of the flesh.”
Wisdom, Prayer, and Purity.
We pray this in the nineteenth psalm: “The law of the LORD is an undefiled law, converting the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, and giveth wisdom unto the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, and giveth light unto the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, and endureth for ever; the judgments of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is thy servant taught; and in keeping of them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:7-11).
God calls to us in our brokenness, and he invites us to a new lifestyle.
This is Epiphany. It is not enough that we baptize our homes with holy water. We must baptize our life with holiness.
It has been a painful week. Christmas arrived. Immediately, so many in our parish became sick. In only a few days, we lost two members of our community, both with deep roots in our lives. The loss of loved ones is a wound you carry with you always.
In all this, the Epiphany message rings with force. The world is a hard place, but in all its darkness, Jesus Christ is born. The world is lost and confused, but in our mess, if we lift up our eyes, we will see the star. God comes to us in all our problems, but he does not leave us in them. He offers a way out through Wisdom, Prayer, and Purity. God is born in the flesh. It remains to us to follow and adore.