Today many Christians observe Epiphany, commemorating the coming of wise men to see the infant Jesus, following the star until they found him in Bethlehem. Epiphany concludes the traditional twelve days of Christmas, and what it adds to our Christmas celebration is the Good News that God’s presence is a Gospel meant for all the world. The star shines for the redemption of all of humanity. The wise men who sought out the infant Christ came from beyond the family lineage of Israel, and together they symbolize the longing for life and love, hope and peace, that every member of the human community shares. As the Gospel of John’s opening lines declare, “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.” On Epiphany we celebrate that the imperative of the prophet Isaiah is an invitation for the whole world: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Epiphany may be a specifically Christian holy day, but in our celebration we the Church are simply what theologian Karl Barth once called the “provisional representation of all humanity.” In our Epiphany celebration, we foreshadow a hope for all people, the light of life, Emmanuel, God with us!
Of course, we also are in the first days of a new year and (depending on how you keep count) a new decade. The year 2020 promises to be a momentous turn in time, and many of us might hope so, since 2019 and the decade it closed were not particularly attractive. The decade of the tens impressed on us the weight of our environmental degradation. At the end of this past decade, we witnessed the rise of unapologetic racism, xenophobia, and global isolationism. We Americans descended into a mire of hyper-partisanship, mutual suspicion, and demonization, possibly marking the beginning of the end of American democracy as we once knew it. And none of this includes the personal hardships, family rifts, and church tensions that have made this past year and decade one many of us would just as soon forget.
But perhaps this is a good time to hear what Epiphany bears, precisely because we enter 2020 so weighed down with the darkness of 2019. Symbolized by a star shining in the night sky, beckoning to weary travelers seeking truth, the message of Epiphany repeats the Christmas Eve anthem for a larger audience: there is no need to live in fear, for the Source of peace and joy is in the world! Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and good will toward men! The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it!
This message is no naïve optimism that ignores the real darkness all around us. That darkness is real and hard, but in the grand arc of God’s universe it has already lost. Knowing that the game has already been decided, then, we are called to believe that the light shines in the darkness, and to be the light that shines in the darkness. This calling is the source of our faith, the energy in our labor, and the purpose in our identity as Christians. Believing that the light of life is in the world, we arise and shine with the light of God’s ever-present glory, defying in our words, actions, and relationships a darkness that desperately but futilely persists.
New Year’s Day is a season for resolutions, promises we make to ourselves for how we might live differently this year than we did the year before. You may resolve to lose some weight, kick some bad habits, work less, rest more. While we are making all of those other promises, perhaps we should add one more, an Epiphany promise: to hope and praise more. The truth is that 2020 will bring us all the reasons for cynicism and fear that we left behind us in 2019. But perhaps we can resolve to take a different tack, to meet those moments of darkness in the year to come with an Epiphany attitude, one in which we lead with our confidence that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
When we are confronted with the darkness of nationalism and isolationism, let us insist on the Gospel reminder that the light of life is for all people, so that the righteous way to make America great again is to reclaim our leadership role in the defense of human rights and in the protection of the planet. When we encounter the darkness of racism, let us stand with the light of stars for respect and equality. When we are confronted with the suspicion, distrust, and demagoguery that currently reign in our politics and bleed into our families and churches, let us respond as the angels did: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and good will among men.”
Above all, let us commit to being God’s light in the darkness with hearts of praise and thanksgiving, not cynicism and fear. There’s already more cynicism and fear than we need in our communities, our nation, and our world. Skepticism and detachment are more and more prevalent. We’re capable of something different, however, for though the darkness is all around us, and thick darkness covers some people more than others, we know that ultimately the darkness is long on bluster but short on power. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has already lost!
So lift up your eyes, as Isaiah advises, and look around for the signs of life and light in your midst. Arise and take your opportunity to shine the light of life and joy for others. Be the light of God-with-us, in the confidence that darkness may cover the earth for the moment, but God’s light already reigns.