A couple of years ago, we moved from the inner-city of Washington to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. There are at least two things I haven’t gotten used to yet, and hope I never will. Both are arresting. Both can stop you in your tracks with a sense of awe, immanence, finitude, and God.
One is the quiet.
The other is the night sky.
Where we used to live, the bright lights in the sky at night moved fast, and sounded like helicopters. Here, they move but not quite so quickly, and make no sounds, at least none that I can hear. And there are more of them, millions of them.
On a moonless night there are thousands and thousands you can see, the stars, pinpricks on a black canvas letting pass some greater light.
The other night it was not so, for the moon was full, and its reflected light drowned out almost all others. I happened to have the chance to be up early on that evening, long before the night was over. I had to drive, first north then east.
I needed no other light to find my way to the car, no other light to find the place to put the key in the lock. The moon was enough.
And as I drove north, it hung low in the sky on my left, lighting up the mountains, the fields, the farms. It was night and yet not night, for the moon was so bright it seemed it could have been daylight.
And then I turned east, and the most amazing thing greeted me, colors on the horizon, orange and red and purple and indigo. Some greater light was coming into the world. When it broke the horizon, it drowned out all else.
That moon dimmed in my rearview mirror, for the sun was coming, then came.
And soon I put sunglasses on, I had to.
And the day that broke was the First Sunday of Epiphany.
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Epiphany is the season of the church year when we mark the manifestation of God to us in Jesus. If Christmas is about celebrating the coming of Jesus the Christchild, Epiphany is about the revelation of Jesus the Godman. Our English word comes from the Greek epiphanea, it means “appearing, or the appearance”, or “manifestation”. We use the word commonly to speak of simple things we come in an instant to recognize, the proverbial lightbulb going on over our head.
But its deepest meaning is the revelation of the divine, and that’s what we as Christians mark in this season. God has appeared in Christ! The candle has been lit. The light has been turned on. Dawn has broken.
There are three stories from the gospels that the lectionary guides us to at the beginning of this season: The visit of the magi, the baptism of Jesus by John, and Jesus’ first miracle of turning the water into wine at Cana. The common denominator of these three stories is that in every case Jesus was revealed as God and it was visibly evident that God appeared and was with us through him, Emmanuel indeed.
Light floods the early chapters of the gospels as a dominant motif.
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (Jn. 1.4-5,9)
The shepherds were abiding in their field on one black night, when one angel came to them, and the glory of the Lord shone in the dark (Lk. 2.9), no doubt brighter than any sun, and the whole night sky was soon filled with the angels, light on Light.
Early on, Matthew interprets the coming ministry of Jesus by quoting Isaiah, “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” (Mt. 4.16)
Even earlier in Matthew, we find wise men from the pagan sands of Babylon following a bright star for hundreds and hundreds of miles, looking for the newborn King of the Jews. “Behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Mt. 2.1-2)
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The story of the magi is a powerful one. They, who did not believe in Yahweh, following Yahweh’s sign across the desert. They, who were not expecting a Messiah, seeking him. They, of course expecting a new king would be born in a palace, being willing to go another nine miles (after hundreds traveled already) from Herod’s halls in Jerusalem to a stable in some backwater little town called Bethlehem. They, who were not Jews, taking the prophecies about where the Messiah would be born more soberly than the Jewish scribes themselves. The scribes, reading the prophecy, said the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. The scribes rolled up the scroll and sat tight. The magi got back on their camels, and found what they had traveled so long for, “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Mt. 2.11)
It is a beautiful, tender, true, and powerful story.
Yet there is another part of this story, not beautiful but terrible, not tender but violent, and also powerful, and too true.
It is the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents. It’s part of the same chapter (Mt. 2.16-18), and this story too belongs in Epiphany. For the Light had come into the world, and the Darkness sought to destroy it, to stamp it out, to slay it. If the images of the Epiphany story are light and dark, a color that also belongs in the story is red.
For all of God’s redemptive work in the world, there is Evil which seeks to thwart it every turn. It is a pattern as old as the first story from the Scripture, in the garden there came a snake. Revelation always has Reprisal.
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So now maybe the ‘sacrament of the starry night’ holds more meaning, and what the light of the moon can mean at a deeper level.
Sometimes the dark around us feels so dark that we cannot see any light. And yet there is light, like stars shining against a backdrop of black velvet. Even in those times that feel the darkest, there is still light, a thousand pinpricks.
Sometimes, though it is night, there is still so much light that we barely notice how much night there is, like a full moon shining in the dark. Oh it’s dark, and yet, Oh there is light.
And on both occasions, on this we can be sure, the sun will rise in the morning and banish all the dark away…until it falls again, and again rises the sun to dispel it once more.
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On one level, every season in the church year looks back: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time. At another level, every season in the church year looks forward.
At Epiphany, we look back and remember the revelation of Jesus the Christ as the Messiah of God, the light come into the world. And at Epiphany, we look forward to the next great revelation of Jesus the Christ the Messiah of God, the light coming again at long last to banish forever the power of darkness once and for all. We look forward to that day and to that city where the sun no longer shines nor rises. It is the city of our God, the New Jerusalem, and it “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.” (Rev. 21.23-25)
Now that is an Epiphany worth having, worth waiting for, worth working for, worth praying for, worth hoping in.
So, Maranatha! Come quickly Lord Jesus!
Rev. Bill Haley is the Director of Formation at The Washington Institute and Associate rector at The Falls Church in Falls Church, Virginia.