Friday, January 05, 2007

Feast of the Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6, 9; Psalm 72:1-2, 10-17; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

In every neighborhood there is a house that hangs their Christmas lights long before the rest of us have even thought about where ours might be stored. We drive past that first twinkling house, and as the tiny lights reflect off our car windows we wonder for a moment what day it is and then roll our eyes, realizing it’s not even….what, is it Labor Day, now, when lights start going up?!

The thing is, though, most of us love Christmas lights. I look forward, anyway, to those weeks when it seems that every night another home here, another yard there is draped in strands of light. And unlike streetlights or houselights that cast their glow throughout the year, these strands of light do far more than just provide illumination as we make our way in the dark. Whether we’re expecting party guests or Santa Claus or the Son of God, we know that the more Christmas lights we see, the closer we are to whatever it is we are waiting for.

A few nights before Christmas, we went out driving to see the lights. There was only one six-year old in the car, but you would have thought we were all children with our faces up against the windows, oooh-ing and aahh-ing our way through the neighborhood. Of course there was such a wonderful variety, perhaps reflecting something of the people who lived in each home. White lights neatly wrapped around fenceposts. Multi-colored icicle lights hanging from the eaves. Flashing lights chasing one another around the trunks of trees. Lights in the shape of reindeer and sleds and stars and crosses and angels and elves and candy canes. “Which kind do you like best,” we asked our son. “All of them,” he replied without hesitation.

Someone had told us that one house in that neighborhood had a particularly grand display. But we didn’t know our way around the streets by daylight, much less at night, and so at each intersection we would look both ways and then set off in the direction with the most lights. Finally, through a dark stretch of trees, we saw what we knew must be the house, surrounded by an entire galaxy of Christmas lights. Keeping our eyes on its brilliance, we followed the streets around until we finally found the house and were overwhelmed with the delight of it.

If the appearance of Christmas lights like stars in the sky heralds a long-anticipated event, the disappearance of those lights announces that the event has come and gone. Last night only two houses on our street still twinkled. Darkness had returned. It’s not dark, really – there are plenty of streetlights and front porch lights, but without the merry multi-colored glow it looked dark. The holidays are over, the parties are only pictures, the family has returned home, the sales have ended. School is starting up again. Life is starting up again. We take down our lights and store them away until next Labor Day….

How strange it is that darkness returns in time for us to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, a Feast of Lights, when the appearance of a star in the sky heralded the birth of a king, when wise men followed that star through an unfamiliar neighborhood until they found the house that shone with the Light of the World.

We’re all six years old again when we hear the story, so rich with color and light and wonder and majesty. In the time of King Herod, the narrator of the Christmas pageant would read from Matthew’s gospel, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage….” They were wise men – kings, perhaps, but the word is magi in Greek (magoi), people who studied the stars and who understood much better than we do now how the movements of the earth and the heavens are linked, how a new king might illumine the lives of his people the way a new star shines in the night.

It was quite customary for royal representatives to travel great distances to greet a new king, and what wise man wouldn’t expect to find the King of the Jews in Jerusalem? In the palace? Herod was not the proud father, however, and he sent them on to Bethlehem, nine miles and another world away. And there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they finally found the house bathed in light, they were overwhelmed with the delight of it, overwhelmed with joy.

It is a rich story, with royalty and adventure and intrigue – the villain is thwarted and the underdog is showered with extravagant gifts. It is a delightful story, told in many places tonight by six-year-olds covered in leftover drapery fabric, carrying boxes spray-painted gold and adorned with plastic jewels, singing Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright. And we might be so delighted as to almost forget that it is a story in which there is also deep and terrifying darkness.

Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage. Did the wise men see the shadows set in King Herod’s eyes? Could they hear the fear in his voice, sense his sinister thoughts? Would they have acted differently if they had known that by taking another way home they would infuriate Herod, who was bent on destroying the tiny king, and that in his rage he would slaughter all of Bethlehem’s baby boys? There was never a darker night.

The story is a reflection of our lives, isn’t it, a mixture of light and darkness, of joy and fear, of delight and grief? The streets before Christmas told a similar story, if indeed the lights reflect something of the people who live in each home. Some shine boldly, brilliantly; some flash on and off and on and off; some offer a soft and steady glow; some give off no light at all. "They’re probably just not home," we told our son, moving on to the next house. But the truth is, sometimes people don’t hang lights. Writer Molly Wolf says, “Dark can be the midnight blue against which stars are shot silver. Or it can be just plain dark.”

Some people don’t celebrate Christmas (Santa or Jesus) – perhaps their path is within a different faith or no faith at all. Some people who know the baby to be Jesus the Christ are not able to feel delight or joy this year. Perhaps they are sad or angry or depressed or anxious or grieving. Some people are too weak or sick to hang lights. Some people are busy with more jobs than there are hours in the day. Some people simply cannot afford a penny more on their utility bills. Some people, perhaps resentful or bitter, do not feel they owe the world any light. Some people choose the dark, afraid of what the light might reveal.

The story is a reflection of our lives in that life is not always what even the wisest of us would expect. It’s not always full of light, even when we’re following a star. Color and majesty and wonder mingle with desert dust – we’re celebrating just two weeks after Christmas, but the story in Matthew suggests it took two years for the wise men to reach Bethlehem. The real journey was not for six-year-olds, to be sure. Comfortable homes were left behind. Nights were spent on the road. Noisy, smelly, ornery camels were noisy, smelly, and ornery. Shifty travelers and paranoid kings were confronted. Every expectation was changed about what a king was supposed to look like, where he was supposed to live, and how he would illumine the lives of his people.

The Epiphany journey – a journey of discovery, of revelation, of coming to understand, of changing expectations, of light and of dark – the Epiphany journey is the pattern of Christian living. Like the wise men we are beckoned by the light not just of a star but of the Christ Child – God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. And though there may be discomfort and darkness and risk and dust along the way, at the end of the journey (which is never the end of the story but, rather, the beginning of a new chapter) is overwhelming light and joy.

Herod was right to be afraid – as one preacher has said, Herod's love of power was no match for the power of love. The starlight that night illuminated far more than the humble home of a baby king – it revealed the brilliance of a new kingdom, the kingdom of God. Do you see it? Wise men kneeling before a child. Power paying homage to weakness. Rich giving gifts to poor. Gentile and Jew, men and women, old and young, heaven and earth binding themselves to one another in light and love and generosity.

One light led the wise men to that little house. But three lights would leave as they turned their camels back toward home – by another way, because once they understood where true light, true richness, true power resided, they could never take the same roads they had once traveled. The gift of illumination they had received far exceeded the gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Tonight marks the beginning of the season of light, when we, like the wise men, plunge back into the darkness with a gift of light, with a story about a newborn king, Love Come Down, the Light of the World that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Molly Wolf writes, “We can be lights, by our witness of the love of God to this world, which sometimes seems nothing but night. We can be steady in that light-giving; and then, even if the darkness doesn’t go away, it’s softened and made somewhat less impenetrable and more hopeful near us, at least for a time. And we will have shown other people how it’s done, this light-giving.”

We’ll take down our Christmas lights tomorrow, and forget where they are stored by next week. Let us not forget, though, as we resume our journeys, how rich and wonderful and varied are the lights that are our lives. Arise. Shine. For our light has come, and the glory of God is shining on us and through us and all around us. Amen.

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