A writer I follow recently reflected that today’s Epiphany celebration comes just after the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. From now on, she rejoiced, we get a bit more light every day, we start to be able to at least believe the vanished sun will reappear.
Well of course, but as Aussies we are absolutely soaked in light at this time of year, so our Epiphany is a feast of sunshine, one might almost say too much of a good thing. But whether you celebrate in the dark of the northern winter or the over-saturated light of the antipodes - today’s liturgy rejoices in the metaphor that the coming of Jesus is like the rising of the sun, like dawn in the desert, or a splendid supernova that lights up the night sky and provides a signpost for ancient navigators and all who seek the truth. At more or less the same time we have pale secular imitations, which match neither the brilliant light of the natural landscape nor the wild beauty of the Church’s metaphor – such as the pyrotechnic revelry of fireworks that mark the climax of celebrations on New Year’s Eve – though for me at least the main significance of those was that finally I could go to bed. Christmas, too, is a feast of light – just walk around the streets at night at Christmas time and see the neighbourhood competition to have the brightest and gaudiest Christmas lights. But Epiphany is the ancient festival of lights, the festival that predates Christmas and invites us into a reflection that is, I think, more cosmic in its scope.
Today’s readings speak of two kinds of light – Isaiah is promising the light of hope for a city and a people that have gone through repeated stages of destruction and forced migration – a trauma that of course still echoes down to our own day for the people of Israel and Palestine. And the prophet proclaims that the darkness of despair has been lifted, and a new day of restoration has dawned. In one of the possible Gospel readings for today - the reading from Matthew’s Gospel - the light is more literal, as the magi – the priest-magicians or proto-scientist of the ancient far east are led by the light of a star to discover the hope of the world in the form of a vulnerable infant. And we can only speculate about exactly what realities lie behind the fabulous story. Matthew certainly shapes the telling of it to illustrate his theological emphasis on Jesus as the messiah, the hope of all the nations, and of course it has the beautiful, otherworldly feel of mythology, but the main point is that it is by God’s guidance and through human discernment and sensitivity to the divine leading that the wise men are brought to the holy child.
But it is there, I think that we run into the real challenge of today’s celebration of the light. Because behind the images of kings and camels lies the claim that God, not the social or political structures of the day, is the source of our light. Matthew is insisting that whenever and wherever God breaks into our world that makes all our agendas and priorities relative. That we need discernment and wisdom and humility to read the signs of the times, and that when we do encounter the light of God in our world we are invited to live in it and to offer up the treasure of our lives in order to do so. It’s a tall order, and it goes way further than a cute Sunday after Christmas story.
The word, epiphany, of course, doesn’t mean light but refers to the human experience of suddenly getting it, what we sometimes call it ‘seeing the light’. Not the light, but what happens to human beings when the light goes on. The realisation of what always has been but we ourselves have just seen because the light has dawned for us. In many ways, I think, it is not Matthew’s story of kings and camels but the alternative Gospel reading for today, the wonderful Prologue of John’s Gospel that is more suitable to today’s liturgy, because it is the quintessential epiphany text, the greatest of all the “aha” texts in the Gospels that makes cosmic claims in revealing who Jesus is. Where Mark begins his story of Jesus in the desert, as Jesus begins his adult ministry, where Luke and Matthew begin at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life, John begins at the very beginning, the beginning of all things, and makes the startling claim that before all things, before time and space, as the Word and Light of God, Jesus is.
For John, the story of Jesus is too big to be contained within the normal human calculations of time or even space. John's opening words push us outside our own time frame and the created universe – plonking us straight into the presence of God that transcends both time and space. The words are as lofty and seem almost to roll over the top of us, impossible to comprehend. And yet, the point of this text is that the transcendent, beyond-words God took on flesh, came to us, found us, sought us out, took on our own existence, with its pains, its sorrows, its vulnerability and its joys – that to use the language of modern war reporting, God is embedded with us in the human struggle. To translate the Greek text more literally, the Word "pitched a tent" in our midst, a down-to-earth image for such a hard-to-grasp idea. Whatever else the passage means, what it states completely unambiguously is the depth and the intensity of God's love for the world, God’s pursuit of creation through time and space.
In this passage, we read that Jesus shows us who God is, and that we receive from him an abundance – “grace upon grace” or “gift after gift”. It’s a theology of abundance, the claim that once we have recognised God with us, we experience the fullness of God’s generosity in creation and in our own lives, an overflowing of goodness. I wonder, though, whether as Christians we are entirely comfortable with this, especially as we so often face the reality of limitation in our lives, the limitation of illness or financial hardship, daily reminders of the limitations in the world around us like environmental degradation and climate change, drought and flood and famine and war. And it can be almost an embarrassing disconnect to speak seriously of a theology of overflowing generosity.
And yet, if as Christians we can claim that there is more than enough of everything our spirits need most – forgiveness and reconciliation, grace, life, truth, joy, generosity, healing, justice – perhaps we can also believe that there is more than enough of what creation needs to flourish – more than enough of clean air and water and habitat – more than enough peace and space for human beings if we can just believe it and learn to live it into reality – and enough also for our own lives to be lived with fulfilment. This, of course, is the practice of voluntary self-limitation, and the practice of contentment.
John’s Gospel, of course, doesn’t know about the later Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the compromise formula of fourth century theologians – but struggles to articulate the relationship between God and the Word who is also God. And it is this passage that makes the startling claim that the Word of God present before creation is the same reality that comes into the world as a helpless baby. Actually, it's hard to relate to a transcendent God, but we can relate to a baby, a mother, and even the shepherds who came to give homage. High-flown as the Prologue seems to be, the Word isn't an intellectualised, abstract God but an enfleshed, living, breathing God who comes alongside us in our everyday experience. It’s not, actually, a conceptual claim but a gut-claim, a claim that the embodied experience of God with us can move us to experience one another differently. It means that Jesus’ vision of peace was God's vision for the world from before creation began, a divine vision of freedom and justice, of nonviolence and peace, and of an earth in which all living creatures have a fair and equitable share. If this is God’s perspective on the goodness of creation – then the challenge seems to be for us to learn to live within the framework of a love that sees its own fulfilment in the flourishing of others.
The passage from John’s Gospel does more than tell us what God did at the beginning of time, or what happened that first Christmas, because it reminds us that God is organically and powerfully present in the world and in history throughout time, even in our own time, that we can expect the reality of our lives to disclose God’s presence and purposes. Maybe you, like me, are a bit tired and relieved that Christmas is over – but Epiphany reminds us that the Light of the world is here to stay. Christmas actually takes a while to celebrate, the fact of the incarnation needs to be digested and absorbed into the flesh of our own lives until it awakens in us a gift for compassion, generosity, patience and love. In other words, until the Word becomes flesh in us. As individuals, as a congregation, we ourselves embody the words we live by – what word is revealed in us? Are we, as John the Baptist claimed he was, witnesses who testify to the Light? In what ways do we live out the central truth that we proclaim, that the Word and Light of God has made a home – in us?