Opening The Old Testament
The Winning Light of God: Reflections on Epiphany
January 6, 2013
We U.S. citizens do not do much with Epiphany, the twelfth day after Christmas. Why should we? The camels and the wise guys have already shown up in the Christmas pageant, along with the star and Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, etc. Never mind that camels and Magi are to be found only in Matthew's gospel and shepherds and angel choruses only in Luke; we happily slop them all together as the church has done almost from the beginning. So why bother with Epiphany, the day of the Lord's "appearing," as the name implies?
Anyone even remotely connected to a church knows Matthew's dramatic story: a huge star appears somewhere in the far east and leads some foreign magicians to the tiny city of Bethlehem and the baby that has been born there to an unmarried couple. Upon seeing the child they immediately offer him rich gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. But since Herod, the king of Judea, has been warned by his own astrologers that a powerful child would be born, he proceeds to have all young male children murdered to be certain that the child will be no threat to him. In addition, the foreign magicians are warned not to trust Herod, who told them he really wanted to worship the child, and not kill him; in response to the warning the magicians head home by another route. Herod's terrible plans are foiled.
The fact that these wise magicians have been transformed into kings (after all, "We three Magi" does not scan well in that hymn) and that they have become three (there is no mention of their number in Matthew) is partly at least the result of our text from the Hebrew Bible for today, Isaiah 60:1-6.
The text is from a so-called Third Isaiah, though scholars have made careers arguing about the composition of Isaiah 56-66. Questions of just how many prophets may be found here, when they were writing/speaking their words, who may have been listening, are deeply contested. One thing may perhaps be agreed upon: Isaiah 60 was composed well after the exile, during those difficult days when the Babylonian exiles had returned to Jerusalem only to find the place still pretty much a ruin and filled with those who had not been exiled—peasants, small land-owners, local enterprising merchants, some Samaritans from the north—eking out a living for the two generations since the great city had been razed. Times were clearly hard, and the ancient glories of Israel, such as they had been, were only a distant and painful memory.
Into this difficult historical moment comes this Isaianic prophet, full of hope and joy for a bright future for the wrecked land. "Arise, shine, for your light has come," he shouts; "the glory of YHWH is upon you, YHWH the radiant one" (Is. 60:1). One can almost hear the grumbling of those who heard that. "Easy enough for you to say, old man; you have not been here these last miserable years, groveling in this rocky dirt for scant food."
And, as if the prophet has heard the complaint, he goes on. "Yes, darkness covers (the usual reading is the future tense, "shall cover," but in Hebrew future and present are grammatically identical) the earth, and thick darkness the people. But YHWH shall be radiant; God's glory shall be seen around you, while nations shall go toward your light and kings to the brightness of your radiance" (60:2). Yes, I know it has been tough, says Isaiah, but that is all about to change. YHWH has shown up, full of glory and radiance, and the result will be that nations shall rush toward Jerusalem and kings shall hurry to bask in the brightness that YHWH has granted you.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.