No matter how bright or dark this past year has been, a new year brings the light of a wide-open future.
This is a time of year when we all sense that we have a clean slate – a feeling expressed in our resolutions to do or to be something different, something better in the year ahead.
On Jan. 6 – or the Sunday prior to this date – we remember the coming of the magi to pay homage to Jesus on “Epiphany Sunday.”
Most generally, epiphany means “appearance” or “manifestation,” but it has been further defined as “an intuitive grasp of reality usually through a simple or striking occurrence.”
This expanded definition provides us insight into the celebration of Christmas, where a simple, commonplace event like the birth of a child provides us a new grasp of reality and a light of hope for a better future.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jewish people had been ruled by Rome for nearly six decades.
As was their custom, they found local, native elites to govern the regions. For Jesus’ region, this was Herod the Great who, by the time of Matthew 2, had been “king of the Jews” for about 30 years.
He had established his authority through brutal demonstrations of force, suppressing anyone who resisted the rule of Rome and murdering members of the Jewish aristocracy (and even members of his own family) who were deemed subversive.
The rule of Rome, in general, and the rule of Herod, in particular, resulted in a socio-economic system that brought darkness and despair to the Jewish populous.
There was a gulf between rich and poor. Herod had increased taxes to support a lavish lifestyle and extravagant local building projects in addition to those required by Rome – the bulk of which fell upon the laboring classes.
Agriculture was increasingly commercialized and land ownership was becoming concentrated in the hands of the wealthy elites who acquired the lands of the peasant farmers.
Many of the previously self-employed farmers were left without jobs. Others became employees of a few wealthy landowners, but the wages they received were meager.
Jesus was born into a lower-class family within this socio-economic system around 6 BC.
It is into the darkness of this social order that Jesus came to offer an epiphany – a new grasp of reality – through the light of God’s justice, which he called the kingdom or reign of God.
In the days of King Herod, Matthew tells us that magi (astrologers) came from the east because they saw a star, which can be understood as a metaphor for the light of God’s justice being born again into the world.
What the coming of God’s light looks like is revealed in the ancient Jewish prayer song found in Psalm 72, which begins: “May the rulers rule with righteousness and justice, may the land yield prosperity for all people, may the leaders defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy and rid the world of oppression.”
At Christmas, we celebrate what this psalmist describes – the arrival of hope, peace, joy and love made possible through righteousness and justice.
And yet, coming roughly 12 days after Christmas, Epiphany Sunday reminds us that the darkness will not yield easily to the manifestation or epiphany of a new order.
Within a few years of his birth, Matthew’s gospel tells us that Herod sought to remove the light of God’s justice being manifested in Jesus (see Matthew 2:13-18).
This is the dark side of the epiphany narrative in which the magi are featured, and it should remind us to be vigilant in our efforts to embody the epiphanies of God’s reign.
While much has changed since Jesus’ coming, much remains the same.
Our nations far too often do not seek after, much less produce, prosperity for all people.
Our leaders far too often do not strive for, must less manifest, justice for all and especially for the poor.
Our lives far too often are not governed by a drive to obtain deliverance for the needy, much less rid the world of all forms of oppression.
As a result, our world is far too often filled up with a thick and seemingly impenetrable darkness.
On Epiphany Sunday, we are invited to look, with the magi, for the light that rises upon the eastern sky and to journey toward the light of God’s just reign that offers us a new grasp of reality.
And we are reminded that this requires that we strive to bring prosperity to all people by defending the cause of the poor, speaking for those without a voice, giving help to those in need and seeking to address all forms of injustice and oppression.