Opening The Old Testament
A Super-Nova Shining: Reflections on Epiphany
It is the day of the Lord's appearing, more specifically "a visible manifestation of a hidden divinity," as the older Bauer New Testament Lexicon defines it (p. 304). The Greek word from which we derive the name of this day of celebration is precisely "epiphaneo," which is the combination of the preposition "epi," usually meaning "upon" and "phaino," meaning "to shine." In this combination the preposition appears to increase the power of the verb, hence meaning something akin to "super nova shining," a very bright glare indeed!
And so epiphany has been seen for many centuries. Matthew's gospel provides the narrative backdrop, with Lukan ideas thrown in for good measure. According to Matthew, the evil Herod hears of some unknown "king of the Jews" who has been born somewhere in his kingdom. Some Magi from the east are on their way to Israel to "pay him homage." The frightened Herod gathers his religious toadies and demands to know just where this king might be. They tell him of a verse from Micah 5:2 that mentions the tiny city of Bethlehem that is predicted to be a place from which "shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel." Herod immediately cooks up a plan to get rid of this would-be king.
He calls for the Magi to tell him the "precise time when the star" they have been following appeared, claiming that he wants himself to go to the child "and pay him homage." In reality, the terrified king has only murder in mind, and later will kill countless babies in the attempt to rid himself of this rival monarch. The Magi dutifully follow their bright star to Bethlehem, the star that stops right over the place where the child has been born. They "pay him homage," as they have promised to do, and they offer to the child rich gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And after being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod with this news, they take another route back to their eastern countries. (See Mt. 2:1-12.)
Long tradition, of course, has added to this dramatic scenario by tossing in Luke's shepherds, the heavenly angelic chorus that they heard, and the shepherd's own rush to the place of the baby's birth. Throw in the "ox and ass," perhaps a camel or two, a lowly donkey, and you have the ingredients for the ubiquitous Christmas crèche that can be found in plastic or olive wood in many parts of the Christian world.
But there is another source of this famous scene, and that is Isaiah 60. Many of the familiar story's ingredients are to be found there. The chapter begins, "Arise! Shine! Surely your light has come; the glory of YHWH has come forth upon you!" This third section of the book of Isaiah spends a good bit of its time speaking of YHWH's imminent appearance for the salvation and reappointing of the city of Jerusalem, the nation of Israel, and the people of YHWH. Such language implies that things are not going well for any of these three during the time of this prophet. In short, Israel is desperately in need of the glare of YHWH's epiphany.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.