A new church year began over a month ago, but a new calendar year has just commenced.
No matter how bright or dark the previous year has been, a new year brings the hope of a wide-open future.
We all sense that we have a clean slate – a feeling expressed in resolutions to do or be something different, better.
The church collectively observes what is known as the “Epiphany of the Lord” on Jan. 6 – a celebration of God’s incarnation in Jesus and the coming of the magi to pay homage to the infant Jesus.
Most generally, the word epiphany means “appearance” or “manifestation,” but it has been further defined as “an intuitive grasp of reality usually through a simple or striking occurrence.”
For Christians, a simple, commonplace event like the birth of a child provides a “grasp of reality” that we were lacking before and, thus, a chance for a new beginning in light of this revelation.
One of the lectionary texts for Epiphany this year is Isaiah 60, describing events from 537 BCE when some of the Hebrew people have returned from exile.
The prophet speaks to people living in a world covered in “thick darkness” – a fitting description for those whose hopes have been disappointed by their experiences.
Isaiah speaks honestly by acknowledging the darkness, uncertainty and chaos: “Darkness covers the earth, and thick darkness the peoples of the earth” (60:2).
This language recalls Genesis 1 where chaos reigned in the formless void and where thick darkness covered the world. It must have been a dark, troubling time for Isaiah to compare it to the chaos that reigned before God intervened to give order to the world.
In his book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann suggests that a primary task of a prophet is to penetrate despair by offering up a message “to contradict a situation of hopelessness in which newness is unthinkable.”
This is precisely Isaiah’s aim.
To a people dwelling in thick darkness comparable to the primordial chaos of creation, he declares: “Arise! Stand up! Wipe away the gloom from your countenance and let your faces beam with delight, because a light of hope is, even now, cresting on the horizon.”
The Gospel reading in Matthew 2 moves us several hundred years past Isaiah’s time, yet the nation of Judah feels it’s facing a “thick darkness” once again.
The people haven’t been free for a long time. The few moments of liberty have been fleeting and, tragically, arose from violence and bloodshed.
The Romans are their latest taskmasters and have been for nearly six decades. The rule of Rome, in general, and the rule of Herod, in particular, brought much darkness to the Jewish populous.
The socio-economic system brought the most turmoil and despair, with the space between rich and poor more of a gulf than a gap.
Herod (and other privileged elites) increased local taxes to support their lavish lifestyle and extravagant building projects. And there were heavy taxes required by Rome (the bulk of which fell upon the laboring classes).
Jesus was born into this thick darkness sometime around 6 BCE, and it is into the darkness of this social order that Jesus shines the light of God’s justice that he described as the reign of God.
Following Jesus’ birth, magi or astrologers came from the east because they saw a star – a light, a wild hope as it crested on the horizon of the world’s collective darkness.
The hope symbolized by the star is the light of God’s justice, righteousness and reign born again into a world far too often full of the darkness of oppression, injustice and chaos.
What the coming of God’s light looks like is revealed to us in the psalm reading for Epiphany – an ancient Jewish prayer song now labelled Psalm 72.
The writer describes a day when leaders rule with righteousness, enacting justice and defending the cause of the poor, when fields produce abundant crops, and when economic systems yield prosperity for all.
This is what it looks like when “God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven,” the psalmist declares.
Yet, the immediate threat on Jesus’ life that causes his parents to flee Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18) makes clear that the thick darkness will not yield easily to the light of a new order.
Despite numerous “inbreakings” of divine justice, we still dwell in a world of injustice and oppression.
Our nations far too often do not seek, much less produce, prosperity for all people. Our leaders far too often do not strive after, must less manifest, justice for all people and all creation. Our lives far too often are not governed by a drive to defend the afflicted and obtain deliverance for the needy.
As a result, our world is far too often filled up with a thick, seemingly impenetrable, darkness.
Yet, there is hope because into the darkness of Isaiah’s world, of the psalmist’s world, of Jesus’ world and of our world, the light of God’s path to liberation — the way of life that leads to the world’s redemption —continues to shine.
It is this light that Isaiah tells us to rise up and embrace. It is this light that the psalmist prays will endure forever. It is this light that the astrologers followed to the home of Jesus. It is this light that Jesus proclaimed (and embodied) as the rule or reign of God.
So, may this day of epiphany be a time for renewing our commitment to work for justice and to seek the flourishing of all.
May we join with Isaiah, with the psalmist and with Jesus by seeking to bring prosperity to all people by defending the cause of the poor, speaking for those without a voice, giving help to the needy and ridding the world of all forms of injustice and oppression.