Feast of the Epiphany
3 Jan 2021
I don’t know about you, but I still remember when in December 2019, some ridiculous tv diviner, guru and experts of all sorts, were predicting a marvellous 2020! There were also some predictions about a catastrophe, but nobody paid much attention to them! Now, I say they were ridiculous now, but they give us their predictions every year, and many people listen to them with genuine expectations about the year that is about to begin. Unfortunately, they could not have seen something like this coming! Such a dramatic and underestimated disease, at least at the beginning of last year, spread so quickly and infected over 80 million people, and killed over 1,7 million all over the world. And we are still not over it! Everything seems to be slower than expected, especially vaccination! And many people feel more and more despondent! Of one thing I’m sure, predictions will be much more caution and less optimistic this time.
During this time of uncertainty and confusion, we may need a light to contemplate.
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah talks about this light. As a matter of fact, Isaiah is consistently using the image of the light and the darkness in his books.
Every year we hear the same announcement, which is repeated during Lent and Advent.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”, which is also the First Isaiah’s majestic announcement. “I will turn the darkness before them into the 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,
And 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 the light is so 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. We experienced darkness during this pandemic. The darkness of loneliness and depression for many people. The darkness of physical distancing that sometimes became real social distancing. The darkness of financial uncertainty for so many families.
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 fulfils 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 commission 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.
After a year like 2020, I feel we can certainly relate to their experience and their longing. Our fairly good life has been shattered, and our quality life seriously threatened.
Would we understand Isaiah’s prophecy? I think we would now. Along with we many other people in the world, and some of them in very tragic conditions like people in Yemen, we feel a bit like those caravans of desperate and dehumanised people, but Isaiah tells us that what’s happening to us is not forever, and give us a glimpse of the fullness of life that yet would we enjoy when righteousness would be reestablished in their lands. We would be then turned into caravans loaded with precious gifts as depicted in 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.
You see, we contemplate God who has “become flesh” to ‘dwell among us’, ‘to plant his tent among us’. 'He is not afraid of plunging into our mess, exposing himself to the hazards of human existence, joining our uncertain journey, making himself vulnerable to our need of loving and be loved, allowing himself to be touched by us. Thus, he became a child who, like all of us, would not have been able to constitute his identity, acquire the ability to feel, speak, walk, develop emotionally, humanly and intellectually, had he not benefited from the loving and caring touch of a mother and the reassuring and enveloping embrace of a father.' (From Touched by God by Luigi Gioia)
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 saying 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. Like the magi, the encounter with Jesus will produce a twofold transformation in our hearts. First, 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 other people in the world affected by the pandemic, and all sort of violence and abuse- who long for the light as we do. A light that would end a world of injustice.
Second, 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 than 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 is also a message to and for the world that is increasingly dehumanised. When we proclaim this message to the world we are not being naive or too 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 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 saves it. When we celebrate the Epiphany then, we proclaim that the light of the world -Jesus Christ- prevails over the darkness, and affirms once more that death does not dominate over life.