A few years ago, my wife give me a very original and lovely present. She took out for dinner to a restaurant in London called Dans le Noir (into the darkness). I don’t know if you have ever been there, but it’s a fascinating experience. The interior of the restaurant is set in pitch dark. You cannot possibly see a thing and, consequently, are completely blind. All the waiters are blind and know perfectly well how to move in the restaurant. One of them came for me, ask me to put my hand on his right shoulder and walked me to my table. Then he did the same with my wife. The experience in itself is extremely interesting because you activate your other senses, especially your hearing. Because you can’t see and your eyes are not distracting you, you start listening to the noise and the voices that surround you and pay attention to them very carefully. What’s also amazing is the experience of getting out of darkness at the end of the dinner: going from the darkness to the light. That small experience can give you a hint to help you understand what Isaiah’s prophecy is talking about. Actually he is consistently using the image of the light and the darkness in his books.
Every year we hear Isaiah’s announcement repeated during Lent and Advent. They are very much familiar to our ears: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”, which is the First Isaiah’s majestic announcement. “I will turn the darkness before them into light”, he would say in the second Isaiah’s proclamation of God’s promise. And finally the beautiful proclamation we heard today in third Isaiah:
“Arise, shine for your light has come
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
Ahd thick darkness the peoples;
But the Lord will arise upon you
And his glory will appear over you”. (ISAIAH 60:1-2)
The image of the darkness turned into light is very powerful. How and when do we experience that? They are both extremely important questions to be asked, otherwise we would be at risk of missing out on the meaning of the feast we are celebrating today. Going to a restaurant like I did is certainly a pleasant experience, but the reality is the Isaiah is talking to two different groups of people who experienced many hardships: the first one is the Jewish community who has returned to the homeland after the exile and the second one is the group that remained in the devastated land and viewed the arrival of the exiles as a sign of God’s favour. Both groups were eagerly looking for signs that the divine promises proclaimed by the prophet of the exile had begun to unfold.
The image used by the Prophet then fulfills their need for a sign. Isaiah’s words strengthen their hope and equip the people of God to persist in their vocation as a nation with a divine commision despite the devastation that lies before their eyes. They are longing for the shaft of light that would pierce the gathering gloom and guide them towards a life of integrity and wholeness.
Why do we struggle to understand their longing thou? Perhaps because we live a fairly good life, and our quality life is not that bad after all.
Now think for a moment of the situation of refugees in Libya. Many of them have been -and currently are- treated like beasts, even tortured after they travelled hundreds of miles, very often on foot, to get to the Libyan costs and hope to find a boat that would take them to Europe. Or the homeless, or the victims of human trafficking, many of them children and women.
Would they understand Isaiah’s prophecy? I’m pretty sure they would. They are now a caravas of desperate and dehumanised people, but Isaiah tells them that what’s happening to them is not forever, and give them a glimpse of the fullness of life that yet would they enjoy when righteousness was reestablished in their lands. They would be then turned into a caravans loaded with precious gifts as depicted in the Isaiah’s prophecy today.
The light they long for is the same light the magi were looking for when they meet the baby Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. As matter of fact, Jesus is the incarnation of a human being and a community where there will be no more violence and devastation. People shall be righteous, because our Lord would make them righteous. Is this too idealistic? In a world where violence and war seem to prevail in far too many places, we proclaim the Prince of Peace, we praise the King of Righteousness while we feel surrounded by greed, ambiguity and manipulation.
In that sense the magi are not very different from us or perhaps we are not so different from them. They know very little about Jesus. They are stargazers -astronomers as well as idealists and maybe day-dreamers- but knew they had to follow a star to get to the light. Did they really go away knowing who they met? I seriously doubted. I dare to say they were wiser when they left, because -even in their little understanding of the unique event they were witnessing- they met the light, the wisdom of God, which is just another name of Jesus.
The feast of the Epiphany is the living memory of this truly human experience of love. Likewise the magi, the encounter with Jesus will produce a twofold transformation in our hearts. Firstly, it will heal us if we are able to bring to him our sufferings, wounds and pains, and offer him our wounded hearts along with the many -refugees, victims of violence and abuse, lonely people, the homeless, the poor and the needy- who long for the light as we do. A light that would end a world of injustice.
Secondly, we will receive the light, the wisdom of God, Jesus lying in a manger. We know that we still know very little about him, and we will always know less that we think we do. But that is a good feeling. It means that the longing for the light is still alive in our hearts and constantly brings us back to him. We can’t resist his attraction.
It’s a beautiful and mysterious experience. It also a message to and for the world that is increasingly dehumanised. When we proclaim this message to the world we are not being naives or to idealistic. On the contrary, what we say to the world is that this is the only way to save us all. To those who think that violence and greed are the pillars of this world, we respond that they are just sowing the seeds of destruction of the humankind. They want to build the city of man. We wish to build the city of God, a God who dwells among us and humanise our world and eventually save it. When we celebrate the epiphany, we proclaim that the light of the world -Jesus Christ- prevails over the darkness, and affirm once more that death does not dominate over life.