The Soft Light of Epiphany

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, January 5, 2014

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

There weren’t three of them, they weren’t Kings and they weren’t very wise. The magi in our story brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. At some point over the centuries, someone presumed that only one person could carry only one gift and concluded that there only three magi. The scriptures do not actually tell us how many there were. The magi were not Kings but astrologers, closely reading the stars in light of religious texts. They were familiar with Isaiah 60, the passage we heard this morning, which prophesied the rebuilding and prosperity of Jerusalem, which would be a light shining in the darkness. All nations would bow down before Jerusalem and come bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. It may have been because of this prophecy that the magi brought with them these types of gifts.

These magi were first alerted to something unusual by a bright light in the western sky. There are all sorts of theories as to what this bright light was. The best guess is an alignment of planets, which did happen a few times around the period when Jesus would have been born. A planetary alignment indicated to the astrologers the birth of someone who would be a prominent ruler. The magi put this together with Isaiah 60 and showed up on King Herod’s doorstep, asking around freely and openly about the birth of the King of the Jews. This was the first indication that the wise guys weren’t so wise, especially in light of King Herod’s reputation.

Herod had bit of a paranoia problem. He believed that people were out to get him, and so he got them first. At the first hint of suspicious behaviour, they were knocked off. Records indicate that he ordered two of his sons, one of his wives, and more than 300 public servants killed, all on suspicion of conspiracy. Herod was not someone you’d want to rub the wrong the way. When he heard that astrologers had arrived from the east, looking for the birth of a new king—well, you can imagine his reaction.

The first thing he did was to call together his own astrologers and biblical experts. They agreed that the planetary alignment did indicate the birth of a ruler, but they believed that Micah 5, not Isaiah 60, indicated the place of birth. It was not in a rebuilt, wealthy and lavish Jerusalem where this ruler was to be born, as Isaiah 60 might indicate, but in a poor, neglected village of Bethlehem, as Micah 5 indicates. The magi had figured out part of it, but they had the wrong town and the wrong prophecy. This was the second indication that the wise guys weren’t so wise.

But when Herod summoned them, they began to wise up to his sinister wishes of goodwill. They began to realize that the lights and the glory of the big city were deceptive and indeed dangerous. It was in the dingy, darker town of Bethlehem where hope lay. Their epiphany was birthed not in the light, but in the dark.

Light is not always a good thing. It can be a frightening, dangerous experience. I remember being a patient in the hospital some years ago, when suddenly, in the middle of the night, I was woken by a group of people standing at the foot of my bed, shining a flashlight in my eyes. I sat up, panicking, asking what was wrong. I felt as if I was in a prison, being woken up and interrogated. When I realized that it was simply the night shift checking on all of their patients, I lost any semblance of grace in my response to them. After they left and I lay down again, I was still trembling and amazed at how terrifying that light had been.

The Star of David, which some have equated with the Star of Bethlehem, has been both a star of hope and a star of terror. It pointed to the birth of the Messiah, to the coming of a reign of gentle peace, born in humble beginnings. But it also became a sign of ostracism and death when Jews were forced to wear the star made of the brightest and therefore most visible colour of yellow. A muted star of life was twisted into a brighter star of death.

It’s a bit ironic that, in the season of Epiphany when Christians celebrate the light of Christ, we are packing up the bright lights of Christmas. At a time when we’re gearing down from our celebration of Christ’s birth, the church used to be gearing up to one of its most important celebrations. The two pivotal feasts of the early church were Easter and Epiphany, the two poles of light, indicating the beginning and the end of Jesus’ ministry. It wasn’t until 300 years after Jesus’ birth when the church began to align the celebration of Jesus’s birth with the pagan feasts of winter solstice. But even then, Christmas was not without controversy.

On Christmas Day in Boston in 1706, rioting broke out on the streets and church windows were smashed. On one side were the Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians, supported by the Methodists and Quakers, who opposed the “unbiblical” celebration of Christmas. On the other side were the Anglicans, supported by the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics. This battle in Boston was the not the first. The Swiss Calvinists introduced this ban of any special feast days to the British Isles, when Christmas was outlawed in Presbyterian Scotland and in England when the Puritans held sway.

In the post-partum aftermath of Christmas, when we are suffering from over-indulgence of the stomach and the wallet, we may warm to the anti-Christmas sentiment of the founding denominations of the United Church. Epiphany, for us, may not be a brightening of lights, but a subduing of the Christmas extravagance. Once the bright lights are packed away and we recover from mall overload, we may wisen up to the growing epiphanal awareness of the magi: Christ is not found in the glare of the bright, commercial lights, but in the soft glow of candle-lit hospitality.

We used to have neighbours down the street who always had an electric candle lit on their windowsill. When I asked them about it, they said that it was an old Mennonite tradition. Any house with a lit candle in the window indicated that it was a safe house of hospitality to any who needed a place to stay. I think the magi would have understood, in their search for the promised one of peace. They were guided by the soft starlight, easy to lose in the bright city lights—and perhaps they did mistake the magnificent lights of Jerusalem for the starlight over Bethlehem. They needed the darkness to see the true light.

In the words of enricus coone:

Light went looking for truth with bright eyes
Hoping to shine upon it in whatever darkness it wore for hiding
Wide and unblinking concentration never stirred
Light was in for the search of its life
There was more darkness than light
And to its advantage darkness had permits to go places light can not follow
For darkness is older than light
was and is always everywhere light is not
In fact the moment light arrived darkness would escape undetected
With truth in the midst of its aura…

As the magi found darkness to be a friend, we, too, may need the dark to see the soft light of Christ.