We celebrate Epiphany as the time when Gentiles learned about the savior. (Up to this point, only Jewish shepherds and Mary’s relatives knew about the divine birth.)
The theme of the readings (Isaiah 60.1–6, Ephesians 3.1–12, and Matthew 2.1–12) is about the light of the world shining on everyone.
The first reading from Isaiah encourages the dispirited Israelites who face the job of reconstructing Jerusalem after their return from Babylon in 538 BCE. This passage affirms God’s favour and the significance of Israel’s mission to the world. It is part of a longer oracle of salvation that runs from chapter 60-62.
The reading begins:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
These first two lines contain rich meaning. The command to arise can be literal. It can mean ‘get up’. It addresses the despondent returnees, who found Jerusalem in ruins. But the imperative to shine more symbolic. In context, it suggests something like, ‘Let God’s glory be reflected off you’. It commands the people to show how God is working in their lives.
Light is a symbol, rather than a synonym, for God. Light indicates the presence of God and often the best of God’s creation, but it is not God himself. (Recall also the use of light in Genesis 1:3-5 God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.)
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.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
This oracle of Isaiah about nations coming to your light seemed, to later writers, to predict the star that the Magi saw in Matt 2:1-12. Beyond that, however, the reference to nations also suggests that God’s light is intended for everyone, not only the Jewish people.
To the returning Israelites who had been defeated in war and made slaves in Babylon the idea that nations would come to your light must have seemed like outlandish wishful thinking. It went against all their experience.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
The results will be experiential as well as the physical reconstruction. Your hearts shall thrill and rejoice.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Midian, Ephap and Sheba, which were neighbouring, foreign regions, reflect Jerusalem’s future attractiveness to the wider world. The city would rise from the rubble and resume its place as a centre of praise for God’s work.
Gold and frankincense were signs of wealth that would be brought as gifts of tribute and celebration. These were also among the gifts that the Magi brought to the Christ child in the gospel for today.
This reading from Isaiah reminds us that there was a long history of hope for and prophecy of a savior who would come to Israel. Moreover, the prophecy took root in a time of great despondency and depression among the Jewish people, some of whom surveyed the ruins of Jerusalem and concluded that this represented their future. The savior would be born into a similar situation with the nation subject to Roman rule and its appointee, Herod, as local tetrarch.
- How would you shine? How could you make your life show that the glory of the Lord has risen upon you?
- Perhaps the first way to answer this question is to look back at 2018 and ask yourself: where was I aware of God’s presence, or light, in my life this past year. What was that experience like? How did it happen?
- What difference would it make to others if you let God’s light reflect off you? How could that happen? Would it be with your words? By how you act towards others? By your prayers? Something else?