Words on the Word


Isaiah 60:1-6: Arise, shine out Jerusalem, for your light has come.
Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6: I have been entrusted with grace  for you.
Matthew 2:1-12: We saw his star as it rose.

Since the liturgical reforms of the 60s, Epiphany belongs to the magi. The Gospel tells of their astral discovery, of their quick pursuit, of the complications they meet in Judea. For being Oriental, they have become familiar to us, like assimilated immigrants. What would our cribs be without them? Their prominence belongs to Epiphany tradition.

But till not so long ago, this feast was kept with a broader remit. Epiphania is Greek and means ‘manifestation’. With its taste for interlocking symbols, the liturgy saw Christ’s encounter with the magi as the first in a series of manifestations. Intertwined with it was his baptism. To these two themes a third was added: that of the wedding feast at Cana. Thirteen days after Christmas, the Church would recall a threefold display of divinity: the revelation of God incarnate to the gentiles; the beginning of his ministry; his first miracle. Epiphany took in the full sweep of Christ’s early life. That synthetic vision has now been parcelled out. The Baptism is a separate feast. No trace remains of Cana in today’s prayers.

This development makes for a linear presentation of Christ’s emergence into view. It makes pedagogical sense. Yet we must still keep Epiphany in a theological perspective. Fond as we are of the magi, we must see beyond them. Today’s feast recalls the self-revelation of God to a world worn out with waiting. The magi are more than flunkeys, walk-on parts in a drama from which they exit unaffected. They stand for yearning mankind, you and me. Their quest is ours.

Isaiah cries: ‘Arise, shine; your light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.’ The explosion of light is arresting. But who is told to rise? The recipient of the oracle is Jerusalem. Zion is told, ‘Get up, be bright!’ But don’t imagine proud Zion, Solomon’s capital, rising in beauty, the joy of all the earth!

The Zion addressed had been all but razed to the ground. The first two-thirds of Isaiah bear witness to the onset of destruction. It makes for uncomfortable reading. Why? Because it is not the outcome of a foreign nation’s random violence. The Lord who decreed the city’s fall. ‘You’, says the prophet, ‘have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin.’ The Lord had sworn to remove from Jerusalem stay and staff, leaving neither bread nor water. Every lofty edifice would be trampled underfoot. Once more we must ask: Why? Because pride in their city had shut God out of people’s hearts. They trusted, not in him, their Rock, but in their city’s walls. Their worship had become lip-service. When hostile troops drew near, they did not resort to repentance and prayer. They sought allies. The Lord said: ‘In quietness and trust shall be your strength.’ They responded, ‘No! Our horsemen will carry an SOS to Egypt!’ The Day of the Lord’s epiphany foretold in Isaiah is a day of judgement. ‘The Lord alone will be exalted in that day.’

The Lord alone. That is: everything and everyone else will be brought low.

This prophecy was fulfilled. Isaiah’s Zion was reduced to a heap. When Jerusalem is told to ‘rise and shine’, the imperative ‘rise’ has all the force of Christ’s command to the daughter of Jairus. The light that manifests the Lord is a light of resurrection, a light with paradoxical power. It makes the blind to see, the lame to leap, the dead to rise from the stillness of the grave. It does not rise out of earthly securities. Securities obscure it. The ones who perceive it are the poor.

Having seen the star, the magi rode to proud Jerusalem first, of course. But the King was not there. Instead, they met Herod, the villain of the piece. He had re-built Zion splendidly. Remember the Apostles’ admiration: ‘What stones, what buildings!’ A few years after those words were uttered, nothing was left — Jerusalem’s fall at the hands of Rome in AD 70 haunts each page of the NT. The New Jerusalem, meanwhile, in which Christ’s light shone, arose out of nothing. It was sheltered, at first, by a stable, but its light was not contained. The New Jerusalem is a matter of presence, not of place. Structures and institutions fall. What remains is the Word proclaimed in the night by a star.

Epiphany shows us where the Lord is found — and where he is not. But how prone we are to seek him in the wrong place! When we do, God helps. His way of helping may not seem like help. He may make our ramparts crumble, our strong city fall. When we stand in the rubble, exposed and fearful, we may cry out: Lord, how could this happen? Well, perhaps the Lord caused it to happen, wishing to save us from false securities, to call us back to himself, our true Strength. ‘Lift up your eyes round about’, we are told today.

Should it happen that your world falls apart, look up, not down. Look to the star. Follow it, like the magi. This may be your call to rise from the dead, to see light in darkness, thus to become a lantern for others. 

Photograph: Margot Krebs Neale.