Adoration of the Magi – by Joos van der Beke van Cleve (Detroit Institute of Art)
60 Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
3 Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
It is the Day of Epiphany. The journey of Christmas, which began with the promise of the coming of Emmanuel, is coming to a close. We have witnessed the birth of the child born in Bethlehem of Judea (Luke 2
), and now we celebrate the light that shines in the darkness, guiding the nations to the child who reveals the light of God to the world. Yes, it is time to celebrate the truth that God has been manifest to us in the person of Jesus. Even when darkness seems to be closing in, “the star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light” (John H. Hopkins, 1857).
Epiphany, as a liturgical event, is connected to the visit of the magi (wisemen) to the holy family, who in Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus are living in Bethlehem. We celebrate this story in the John H. Hopkins famous hymn “We Three Kings,” which tells the story of kings bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each holds great value and is fit for royalty, but they are brought to a child living not in a palace but in some non-descript home in the village of Bethlehem. In our Christmas pageants and creche scenes, the three kings or magi (as they are named in the Gospel of Matthew), appear at the manger along with shepherds and angels. It’s an easy merger of the stories, but Matthew’s version of the infancy story is rather different from that of Luke. Even Matthew doesn’t give us the number of magi, only the description of the gifts. But historical accuracy isn’t the point.
In Matthew’s telling of the birth story, the Holy Family is living in Bethlehem. It seems as if this is their hometown. Matthew knows nothing a census that draws the family from Nazareth in the north. They’re just there, when the magi (astrologers) show up in the neighborhood, having seen a star in the sky that they interpret as a sign that a new king of the Jews has been born. These Gentile seers go first to Herod, hoping he can give them some further guidance, and Herod learns that the promised messiah is to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 2:2-5
). When Herod learns from his advisors the messianic prophesy, he sends them on their way, asking that they report back so he too can give homage to the new born king. Of course, after they follow the star to the home of the Holy Family and offer their gifts, they are warned to go home without reporting to Herod. For his part, Herod is infuriated, and orders his troops to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem, making sure that this rival is cut down before he can prove to be trouble. Fortunately, for the Holy Family, but not the other families in Bethlehem, they are warned to flee to Egypt as political refugees, which they do (reversing the Exodus story). That is the Epiphany story in a nutshell (Matthew 2:1-18)
Standing behind this story of the magisterial visit to the home of the Christ child is this vision from Isaiah. In what is most likely a post-exilic message, perhaps coming from the time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the prophet pictures the glory of the Lord rising and shining into a world that had experienced deep darkness. We see that darkness described in the previous chapter (Isaiah 59
), where injustice seems rampant, and the people grope in the darkness, seeking a way forward, and that reality is reaffirmed in verse 2 of chapter 60. That is the context in which the prophet offers a word of hope. In verse three we’re told that the Lord will rise in the midst of the people, revealing God’s glory. Yes, the light that is God breaks through the darkness, as the “glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” The people may have lived in darkness, but God is now present, and with God comes the light that overcomes the darkness. Not only does this light shine into the darkness, but the nations are drawn to it, making their way to the source of light, even as the magi were drawn to the home of Jesus, guided by the star in the sky.
If we’re to see this light, we’ll have to lift up our eyes and look around. That’s not easy when our eyes are attuned to the darkness, having groped around in that darkness. It takes some time and discipline to focus our attention on the light, having become accustomed to the darkness. The light, however, is good. It disperses darkness and reveals God’s vision of hope and healing for Israel and the world. It’s a message of hope and healing. Consider that sons and daughters will return home, perhaps ending the brokenness that existed in the community. For Judah, which had suffered exile, this promise of return is powerful and healing. With them come the nations, bearing gifts, so as to acknowledge the healing presence of God. The gifts, interestingly, include gold and frankincense, even as they come to give praise to God. You can see the connection here between Isaiah and Matthew.
As we contemplate this vision of Isaiah, we might ask what kind of light is shining into the darkness? Is it a powerful bank of lights that blinds us once turned on? Or is it subtler? David Schlafer, suggests that this light is on the subtle side, being “like the imperceptible dawning of the morning sun, like the slowly building brightness of a kindled fire.” He goes on: “As in other poetic oracles (see the text for Christmas Eve, Isa. 9:2-7), the reiteration in cadence of complementary images of darkness and light underscores the felt sense of God’s light rising slowly, imperceptibly, rather than in a burst of clarity coming all at once” (Connections,
p. 146). It’s bright enough to be seen by the nations, but not so bright that it overwhelms. It requires, as in the story of the magi, an ability to discern the meaning of the light.
So what is the message of Epiphany for us? The Day of Epiphany rarely falls on a Sunday, and so only the most liturgically oriented traditions, which might meet on a day other than Sunday, will normally celebrate the event. Growing up in the Episcopal Church, we held a service called the Feast of Lights, which included a post-service party that featured a cake (which may be why I remember it). In 2019, the calendar allows for the churches to once again observe this holy day in its full glory, celebrating together the word that God’s presence has become fully manifest in the person of Jesus. The story of the magi is often seen as a sign that the gospel will extend to the nations, to the Gentiles, as well as Jews. Isaiah speaks here of the light drawing to itself the nations, the Gentiles, so that all might experience God’s presence. The nations even come bearing gifts.
As we celebrate this festival, affirming the message that God’s presence is fully manifested in Jesus, whom Matthew pictures being born in Bethlehem, and to whom the nations gather bearing gifts, what forms of darkness do we confront? What is the darkness of our times into which this light from God shines? What does it reveal about our lives, our world, and God’s vision for us? To name one, it might be the ongoing presence of racism in our culture, which influences so much of our social context and issues. As light shines into this reality, might we begin to see things differently? Might we even see ourselves differently. We can add to this list, of course. As we do, may we find hope for the present and the future in the light of God that shines into our darkness, drawing us to it, so that we might find a pathway forward into God’s new reality. In Isaiah’s vision the people will be blessed by material benefits, a sharing of resources, both exotic and basic, even camels. In other words, it’s time for a party!
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.