If you have the opportunity to go to France and visit the Chartres Cathedral, pay attention to the famous rose window in the south transept. You will see each of the four evangelists depicted standing on the shoulders of a prophet, as if on the shoulders of giants. Their chosen prophetic antecedent provides them with sufficient height to enable them to record the ways Christ -at least from their privileged vantage-point- meets the hopes and expectations of the ancient prophecies. Matthew’s prophet at Chartres is Isaiah, in recognition of his prominent place in the First Gospel.
Now, today’s gospel is essentially a proclamation of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee through a literal quotation from the Book of Isaiah.
It is worth then asking who this giant -on which shoulders stands Matthew the evangelist- is. In the Old Testament there is an apocryphal text called The Ascension of Isaiah that tells us the story of Isaiah and his community of prophets who had to flee into the desert to avoid the persecution of the wicked king Manasseh. Bekhirah, a false prophet, accuses Isaiah to prophesy against Jerusalem declaring to be a visionary superior to Moses and able to see God with his eyes: “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa 6.5) As a result of these accusations, is arrested and dies a martyr sawn in two by his persecutors while speaking words inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Since the Old Testament states that no one can see the Lord and remain alive, this prophetic vision seems to contradict this biblical saying. We know that we can see God through our eyes of faith, because “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5.7). Nevertheless, Isaiah’s affirmation is still very powerful: “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts”. While trying to express his encounter with God -and being conscious of how difficult it is to describe it, Isaiah longs for revealing his experience of God: God is the king of history. As a matter of fact, Isaiah’s vision is powerfully theo-political. While he sees the great king of Assyria advancing threateningly towards the borders of Israel, Isaiah affirms that the true king is the Lord. He then preaches a God who acts in history, profoundly involved in human history. Also the prophet sent by him is someone who stands in history, in full solidarity with the people as they turn to God. At the same time, he stands on God’s side, to convert the people through his preaching. The prophet plays a twofold role in the history of salvation: he is one of us, but at the same time belongs to God.
This is why Isaiah is quoted literally at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, because Jesus is the God with us, the Emmanuel, so deeply involved in human history to the point of becoming a human being, which is what we celebrated a few weeks ago on Christmas Day: the Incarnation. Jesus made himself one of us still remaining the Son of God. This is the real revelation, the epiphany to the world.
Epiphany means festival of light. The light that shines in the darkness. The same light that Isaiah gloriously proclaims in his prophecy: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light”.
The difference between Isaiah and Jesus is that now it is not the prophet but God who is in full solidarity with the whole humanity. God became a human being so that every human being can become truly human. This changes it all. The world won’t be the same any more. Now we start understanding why Isaiah’s prophecy is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and has such a powerful meaning. The prophecy is fulfilled because the God who Isaiah saw as a king is now King, Man and God, and King, Prophet and Priest as we say while we will anoint Freia during the baptism today. The liturgy of the baptism lead us to the encounter with God through different symbols. One of them, the final one, is the light. We light a candle from the Paschal Candle -who represents our Lord Jesus himself, the light of the world- symbolising the light of the faith now lit in the heart of the newly baptised child.
There is another fascinating part of Isaiah’s story that it is worth exploring. Isaiah’s experience of God is essentially an adoration of the one true and living God. He stands before God’s face in fear. It is an unspeakable experience. Interestingly He sees the Lord but he does not describe him, but the attributes of his power. Flaming creatures (the Seraphim) stand on both sides of God’s throne and acclaim: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6.3). God is proclaimed King, Lord and the Holy one. Holiness is the distinctive attribute of God, which expresses in itself distinction, separation, otherness. God’s holiness indicates a power that shines and consumes, therefore is possessed of a glory. Faced with this vision of God’s holiness the Prophet feels lost and struck with terror. He is aware of his unworthiness because God’s holiness is unbearable for him, and for any human being. Just like Peter who -facing the holiness of Jesus- says: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”, the Prophet says: “I’m a man of unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips”. Before God’s light, the prophet can see what is stopping him to make communion with the Holy one: his sinful nature, his unworthiness, which is very much part of his -and our- human condition. At that very moment of complete awareness, Isaiah wishes to run away from God, but one of the seraphs flys to him holding a live coal and touches his mouth with it, saying: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out” (Isaiah 6.5-7).
In our daily experience light enables us to see things, and thus to know they are there. The experience of Isaiah is an epiphany because it is a revelation of the power of God to redeem humanity. Isaiah is not better than us, instead he states to be one of us. Likewise him, when we meet with the Light of the world -Jesus present in the Word and the Eucharist today- we discover ourselves as sinners and want to run away. However, it is at that very moment when we need him more. It would be very foolish of us to think that we come to church for the sunday Eucharist just when we feel worthy of being here or enough good people to be part of a community of faith.
The experience of discovering our unworthiness and our sins is not as bad as it looks like. Sins our part of our human nature, but running away from God because of that would be a huge mistake. Our response, instead, should be of total surrender to love’s redeeming power, which is able to heal our wounds, and blot out our sin and guilt. When Matthew says: “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven”, he is not talking about Jesus, but us. Now how can we be the light of the world if we don’t let the light of Jesus into our hearts and minds?
Today’s gospel sounds powerfully in our ears: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light”. Our challenge is not to be afraid to let the light in, because it will show who we really are and free us to be the light for others who may need us at work, in our families and anywhere we could see darkness. The world needs this light more than ever. Violence and war, as well as corruption and greed can blind us, and actually blind many people. As a result of it they live in darkness. The only way we know of fighting back is bringing light. In his very last interview, the philosopher Bertrand Russell said: “Hate is foolish, Love is wise”. We preach God’s love because is wise and brings light to the world.