Epiphany: Let it Shine!

The previous blog post raised this question: How could the news of the Light of the World be spread to all people everywhere in the time of Jesus and afterward? Only a small minority of the population could read and write, and there were only rudimentary communications systems. Given such constraints, how would you go about sending any message to a significant number of people in a broad area? The answer is simple: You would tell people. Those who knew Christ carried the Light of his message to others, often one person at a time. Word-of-mouth is still an essential (and perhaps the most effective) way that this news is spread today.

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No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:15-16)

Some believers shine their Light in highly visible settings by preaching and teaching, similar to the apostles in the early days of the Christian church. Others tell people individually, one conversation at a time, about how their lives have been changed by Jesus. Ways to share the Light include doing as well as telling. Many believers shine with the Light of Christ in providing practical forms of care and support to people in need, while others make the Light visible by sharing their material resources for good works. All of these methods are valid and useful, and all of them make a real difference in our world and to the people who inhabit it.

On the other hand, many and perhaps most believers are reluctant to spread the Light of Christ. They say they don’t want to be intrusive to others’ privacy, or they don’t feel qualified to tell the news, or they’re afraid of being rejected or ridiculed, or … you’ve probably heard these reasons before. Bushel baskets come in many different styles and sizes! Of course we all need to respect the rights and preferences of others: No one is favorably impressed by an encounter with a steamroller. And we do want to make sure that the message that we spread is true to the historic teachings of our faith. In a post-religious society we must certainly be prepared to face the realistic risk of rejection or ridicule. Being rebuffed is not pleasant, to be sure, but letting our fear of that experience prevent us from trying is neglecting our mission. This kind of thinking focuses too much on the messenger and too little on the message.

To regain a proper perspective, it may be helpful to examine some of the physical properties of light. Light is powerful. You don’t need the wattage that emanates from a Broadway marquee to illuminate an average-sized room, or even an auditorium. As long as there is even a tiny glimmer from a single candle, a space is not dark.

Do you remember the 1920s children’s hymn that was later adopted by the Civil Rights movement, “This Little Light of Mine?” Its lyrics remind us of a key truth about light (repeats are edited):
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine….
Won’t let Satan blow it out, I’m gonna let it shine….
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine….
Shine all over the whole wide world, I’m gonna let it shine….
Let it shine till Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine….

Did you notice that the song doesn’t say “I’m going to make it shine?” Shining is what a light does naturally: you just have to let it shine.

By its very nature the Good News pierces through the darkness of evil. Jesus came into the world to release all people everywhere from bondage to sin. Those who have welcomed this news to guide their lives naturally live in the Light of Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit beams that Light through everything they do – how they treat the people with whom they come in contact, how they go about their daily duties, how they make decisions and set priorities. It pervades their attitudes and emotions as well as their actions. It’s actually a much bigger job to keep the Light hidden than to let it shine! Attempts to hide the light under a bushel basket rather than putting it on a lampstand may be futile, because light seeks its own way around barriers or obstructions, seeping out through any small crack or gap. Light is both powerful and persistent.

Epiphany is a good time to think about the Light of Christ: Where have you seen it shining lately? What do you think might have happened if the person who carried the Light had instead hidden it under a bushel basket? Do you ever try to hide the Light of Christ within you? Under what type of bushel basket? What would it take to replace your bushel baskets with lampstands?

EPIPHANY: Light to the Ends of the Earth!

At the conclusion of the Advent season we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord, popularly known as Christmas. The liturgical season of Christmas lasts for twelve days, beginning on Christmas Eve and ending on January 5. In stores and homes the Christmas trees and decorations are often back in their boxes by noon on December 26, but the celebration that the church awaited through the long, dark weeks of Advent continues into the first days of the New Year. As hours of daylight lengthen, albeit ever so slowly, our thoughts turn to hopes for the year to come.

The Twelve Days of Christmas are followed by the season of Epiphany, which lasts until Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. The Greek word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “appearing.” The Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 commemorates the revelation of the Messiah to three “wise men” (better translated “Magi” or “astrologers”) from the East. As told in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, three sages (most likely Middle Eastern, not Oriental, as the well-known carol says) noted the rising of an unusual star in the course of their study of the night sky. They interpreted the star’s appearance as a sign of the birth of an infant king of the Jewish people, and determined to use the star to guide them to him. They first went to Jerusalem, the logical place to look for a Jewish king, but the star led them further and they found the baby and his parents in Bethlehem; there they presented him with royal gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

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The story of the Magi and their gifts to the Christ Child is sometimes cited as the origin of our present-day practice of giving gifts at Christmas; however, gift-giving was actually a custom of the Romans during their Saturnalia festival, which celebrated the winter solstice. More significant to the observance of Epiphany is the type of gifts brought to the Christ Child, because it reveals that the astrologers understood the extraordinary nature of this birth. Gold was precious, reserved for a person of great importance, such as a king. Frankincense symbolized sacred worship, and foreshadowed the earthly ministry of the Son of God. Myrrh was a rare and valuable resin used in burial rituals, and foretold the sacrifice that Jesus would make to fulfill God’s plan of redemption. How could three Gentile sages studying the stars arrive at such deep insight into the coming of the Jewish Messiah? Some scholars have suggested that it must have been a revelation from God – a gift of wisdom. That may, in fact, be the greatest treasure of the season, given specifically to non-Jews.

The dual emphasis of the season of Epiphany is on two fundamental aspects of the identity and ministry of Jesus: Christ the Light of the World, and Christ the Hope of the Gentiles. The story of the astrologers who visited the Infant King with their treasured gifts captures both of these elements. The star that summoned and guided them stands for the Light of Christ. Their identity as Gentiles makes clear that God’s Son came to bring the hope of release from sin both to God’s chosen people and also to non-Jews. Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming of the Light of the World has the force of, “All the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; all those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. “ (Isaiah 9:2) We must always remember that we (most of whom are not descended from Jewish ancestors) would not have been included in God’s plan of salvation if Messiah had not been sent for us. And it’s equally important to remember that the Light of the World who came for us also came for all people created by God.

While we rejoice in the good news that the Light of the World has come for us, we may wonder how that Light and Hope could possibly be spread from a small obscure village in Judea to all people, Jews and Gentiles, across the world. More about that question in the next blog post.