Epiphany January 3, 2016 Isaiah 60: 1-4a, 6b Matthew 2: 1-12
Rev. Catherine Purves
I like astronomy, but I know virtually nothing about it. I just learned this week that the winter solstice, the shortest day and therefore the longest night of the year, occurs on a different day each year. It could be on December 20th, 21st, 22nd, or 23rd in any given year. The winter solstice is determined by the tilt of the earth, the closeness of the sun, and where you live on the planet. And that’s really all that I know about it, except to say that we are now blessedly beyond that yearly low point when it comes to light. From now on, each day will be a little longer and each night a little shorter. It is always darkest on the day of the winter solstice, that is, just before the day on which we celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Some people think that clever Christians timed their celebration of Christ’s incarnation to coincide with pagan festivals that took place on the winter solstice in order to lure non-believers to the true faith. Later additions to our Christmas traditions were certainly pagan – most notably, perhaps, the Christmas tree. And they were probably adopted so that Christians could fit into the existing culture and more readily win converts. But there is no clear evidence that this is what originally prompted the selection of December 25th for Christmas way back in the 2nd century.
But even if it wasn’t purely an evangelical decision, the selection of that date, so near to the winter solstice, when the world was at its darkest point in the year, seems more than just a coincidence. It wasn’t only the pagans who recognized that there was a shortest day and longest night every year. And there is no doubt that the decision to celebrate Christmas on December 25th in the Western Church plays right into the dominant biblical symbolism of light and darkness. From the description of creation in Genesis through the proclamation of a new heaven and new earth in Revelation where God becomes the source of all light, this symbolism is used again and again to describe how God acts in the world to bring light and to overcome darkness.
The climax of this clash of light and darkness is best expressed in the beginning of the Gospel of John. He describes Jesus coming into the world in this way: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” The prophet Isaiah anticipated this victory of God’s light over the powers of darkness when he wrote, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” Biblically, it’s always darkest before the dawning of God’s glory. It’s always darkest just before December 25th when we celebrate the birth of God’s Son.
We have all known dark days. Some of us have lived through the dark days of war. Others struggle with dark days of depression. Still others can recall dark days of illness and hospitalization. For several years, 9/11 stood alone as our nation’s darkest day. Before that, it was the day when Pearl Harbor was bombed. But now we seem to have dark days, really dark days, far more frequently. Mass shootings and terrorist bombings, as well as natural disasters and political instability around the world, disease outbreaks, the threat of war on multiple fronts – how much darker can these days become?
And yet, ironically, these dark days don’t seem to be driving people back to the church, back to the source of light and hope. Churches appear to be facing their own dark days with declining membership, aging buildings, and we find ourselves in an unsympathetic cultural environment that discounts our message and doesn’t recognize our values. And, of course, our own congregation is facing a challenging time of change with my retirement at the end of March. We may well be wondering – how much darker can these days become?
It’s always darkest before the dawn. It’s always darkest just before Christmas. It’s always darkest when we can’t yet see the light of Christ coming into the world. Today we are celebrating Epiphany (a little early). Traditionally, it falls twelve days after Christmas on January 6th. This is, of course, the day when we remember the arrival of the wise men, who came from afar to worship the newborn king of the Jews. Matthew tells us that they were following a star, that they came bearing gifts, and that they had an uncomfortable encounter with King Herod on their way to Bethlehem. And we envision them traveling through the darkest part of the year, in the dead of night for weeks on end, across desert wastes, with only the light of an unusual star to guide them.
Those wise men had to have been very brave, when you stop to think about it. Imagine all of the dangers they must have faced on their journey, and how many dark, dark days they endured. What kept them going, I wonder. Why did they even care who would be king of the Jews?
We call them wise men, or magi, which probably meant that they were astrologers. They studied the heavens in order to predict things that would soon happen on earth, momentous things, world-changing things. We may discount astrology today, but these men in their age and culture were certainly seekers after wisdom. They were looking for places where heaven and earth intersected, points of divine intervention that would shape the future. And they saw in the blinding light of a unique star an indication that something had happened or was just about to happen that would impact world history. We can see, then, why they kept following that singular light in genuine hope and with determination.
Of course, they were traveling blind to a certain extent. They believed that there must be a new king of the Jews, otherwise there would not have been a heavenly counterpart, that brightest of stars. But they didn’t really know what they were looking for or where they should look. They didn’t have the benefit of the long history of God’s relationship with his people. They didn’t know the writings of the prophets. They had never heard of God’s promised messiah and what he would bring to all people. They were very much in the dark. And when they met King Herod they saw how very much darker the world could be. It’s always darkest…
Still, they persevered, traveling through the night, following the light of that amazing star, and they found Jesus. In spite of the devious deceptions of King Herod and his murderous efforts to have Jesus killed, the light was coming into the world. The shortest, darkest day was past, and nothing would stop God’s determination to bring the light of Christ into this dark, dark world. The wise men were overjoyed and they worshiped him.
So, how wise are you? How brave? Will you travel through dark, dark days trusting in the light that was promised and that is still coming into the world? How committed are you to journey on to find the child who must be worshiped? And what will you give him when you finally find him? Do you believe that he is stronger than all of the darkness that we see in our world? If you believe that, or want to believe it, then you are wise. And you must be brave, and you have to keep traveling through the darkness so that you can worship him and give him the gift of your life. It’s always darkest before the dawn, but remember this: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it…. The true light, which enlightens everyone, has come into the world. Let us worship him!