The stars seem to shine particularly bright during the dark, cold months of winter. The days are short, the nights are long, and many of us feel the brunt of the season on our bodies and minds, but if we are hardy enough to step out into the cold, we get a glimpse of our galaxy on moonless nights that makes a word like “splendor” feel understated. The vast multitude of lights reminds us that God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. The celebration of Epiphany is, fittingly, a celebration of light, of illumination—but how do we let the light of Epiphany shine into our own lives and those around us in the dark, cold midwinter?
When we speak of light during Epiphany, we’re talking of illumination, of knowledge. Specifically, Epiphany is a celebration of Christ being made known in the world. If Christmas is a celebration of his incarnation, Epiphany is a celebration of his manifestation. This theme is why it is so fitting that the three events typically commemorated together in Epiphany are the visit of the Magi (or “wise men”), Jesus’ baptism, and the wedding in Cana, which is his first recorded miracle. Each of these events relates to the revelation of Jesus’ kingship in a specific way, so let us focus specifically on the Magi’s visit.
The Magi, astrologers from Persia and the surrounding region, discerned that a king was being born in Bethlehem and came to worship him. We’re not sure what time of year it was when the Magi looked up into the sky two millennia ago and saw what the Gospel of Matthew describes as a “star rising in the east.” Various scholars over the years have had their theories, but whatever time of year it was, and whatever spectacular vision presented itself in the cosmos, it signaled to these far-away gentile mystics that a new king had been born and they responded in homage.
We are given, in this early story in Matthew’s Gospel, a picture that points far beyond Bethlehem. In his book Journey into the Heart of God, Philip Pfatteicher says,
“The Epiphany is a manifestation of Christ the Lord to the world and the world’s adoration of its infant King. The Magi represent the nations, and their adoration anticipates all the peoples of the world acknowledging the kingship of the Savior.”
Christ is not only a king for the Hebrew people but all people. The song of Simeon, the old man who encounters the infant Jesus in the temple, praises God that Jesus is “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel,” and just as the Magi bow before Jesus in Bethlehem, the Roman centurion says at the cross, “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Mark 5:39). Lastly, of course, the ministry of the apostles, particularly Paul, spreads wide the good news of Christ to many nations, in whom there is “no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Galatians 3:28). The message of the New Testament, then, is that Jesus’ kingdom is coming not just for the Jews, but for the world.
In the midst of our wintery darkness, this is an excellent truth to remember. Even though we are in a season of seemingly endless night, and although our world itself seems pitch black at times with cultural and political turmoil abounding, a new kingdom is coming, the light of Christ still shines forth, and that light is infiltrating the entire world.
Finally, we, the church, get to be part of that infiltration of light, the manifesting of Christ and his kingdom in the present age. To quote the late Robert Webber in Ancient-Future Time, “The church is the sign of Christ in the world—the continuing manifestation of Jesus in the world.” We are enacting the truth of Christ’s coming kingdom, spreading the Epiphany glow through our words and deeds towards our fellow human beings. So, as we go through the darkest and coldest time of year, may the light of Christ not only shine into and warm our hearts but spread out through us into the world. “The light shines in the darkness,” John reminds us, “and the darkness has never mastered it” (John 1:5 REB).
(Cover image: Kim Shiflett, Mars Visible from Kennedy Space Center. Courtesy of NASA)