Something deep inside us associates light with good and darkness with evil. Maybe we feel this way because darkness can terrify us with its unknowns, cloaking everything in its gloom, while a whole room of darkness can be vanquished in an instant by one tiny candle. It is as if darkness has its bluff called by the candle’s seemingly insignificant light.
Readings for January 5, 2014, Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
Isaiah builds on this powerful, central metaphor to describe the end of the reign of sin and the coming of the Messianic King in this Sunday’s first reading from Isa 60:1-6. He calls on Jerusalem, a city, to “rise up.” It’s kind of an odd thought unless we’ve been carefully reading his poetic metaphors throughout the book. One of the word pictures he has repeatedly used paints Jerusalem (built on Mt. Zion) as victorious in the Messianic age, as being raised up above all other cities (e.g. Isa 2:2). This elevation is not merely a change in altitude, but signifies the spiritual prominence of God’s holy city, the origin of our salvation. By calling on Jerusalem to rise up, the prophet is announcing that salvation has come, now is the time when God will establish the reign of light over the tyranny of darkness. Darkness may cover other cities, other nations, other mountains, but light will reign in Jerusalem!
Gathering God’s People
At this late point in Isaiah (chapter 60 out of 66), the prophet brings several of his themes to a crescendo. One of those themes is that of ingathering. And if you read closely here, you’ll notice two distinct flavors of ingathering. First, the dispersed people of Israel will return to Jerusalem: the sons and the daughters. The ten Israelite tribes that were lost at the Assyrian conquest and the Jews who had been spread throughout the known world are in view here. While the nation had been punished by God for its disobedience by the covenant curse of exile, now Isaiah tells us that the Lord will redeem his people and bring them back to the land. Their coming to gather at Jerusalem is the first stage of this redemption. “The people who walked in darkness” (Isa 9:2) will come into the light of salvation at Jerusalem.
Gathering the Gentiles
Isaiah tells us about the second stage of the ingathering in 60:5-6. Here, the re-gathered Israelites will no longer just look upon the light, but they themselves will become “radiant.” Why? Because the nations will bring their riches to Jerusalem. For us, this might sound avaricious and unspiritual, but it actually conveys a deep spiritual reality. The ancient Israelites had dreamed of restoring the glory of Solomon’s kingdom, with its wealth, power and dominance in international politics. One of the ways that dominance would have been demonstrated in the ancient Near Eastern world is through the payment of tribute. Here Isaiah illustrates the nations coming and paying tribute at Jerusalem—their wealth-bringing is a sign of their subservience. But for our prophet, this tribute is no mere political game, but a potent demonstration of the spiritual debt which the Gentiles will owe to the Jews, to Jerusalem for offering the Christ Child to us.
The Magi’s Tribute
Now we can cash out the significance of this passage in light of the feast of Epiphany—the celebration of the coming of the Magi to worship the baby Jesus. The coming of the Magi, whether they were kings or astrologers, fulfills this prophecy from Isaiah and signifies the dawn of salvation for the Gentiles. When the Magi bring their gifts to Jesus at Bethlehem on the outskirts of Jerusalem, they are symbolically paying the tribute that the Gentiles owe to Israel. Their arrival marks the first stage of Gentile salvation, which will be brought about through the life, death and resurrection of Christ and proclaimed by the apostles throughout the world. Notably, St. Paul himself will inaugurate a special collection from the Gentile Christians to pay to the Jerusalem Christian community as a sign of their spiritual tribute (see 2 Cor 9). Isaiah mentions places where the tribute-bringers will come from: Midian, where Moses encountered God on Mt. Sinai (Ephah is connected to Midian) and Sheba, from which the queen came to meet with and pay tribute to Solomon.
Something Greater than Solomon
Thus Isaiah sees a restoration of the greatness of Solomon’s kingdom, but even more than that, he forecasts the coming of an even greater king, the Messiah. While the ancient Jews longed for a restoration, here the prophet proclaims a greater kind of kingdom than they could have asked for. Jerusalem will rise up, yes, but not as a political power. Instead, the city will reign supreme since in it Jesus will die and rise again. He will win not a political victory, but a more important victory over sin and death. The dark exile of sin will give way to the glorious light of Jerusalem. The lost will be found, the dead be raised, those who were not God’s people now will be.
It is easy for us to get caught up in the politics of the moment and forget that something far greater is at work, deep beneath the surface. God has upended the order of the world and introduced a powerful salvation that changes everything. This Epiphany day, may he end the reign of sin in our hearts.
Editor’s Note: Unpacking the Old Testament is a new series by CatholicBibleStudent.com‘s Dr. Mark Giszczak. Dr. Giszczak is here to help us all come to a richer understanding of what can otherwise be a very daunting collection of books, the Old Testament. Look for his column every Friday from Catholic Exchange.