January 4, 2015
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
In the hot summer nights on the opposite side of the calendar from where we are, I like to watch the insects congregate around a light bulb at night. They wildly twitter away and fly repeatedly into the bulb itself as if that would give them a closer look. They are drawn to the light and they celebrate the light, even if they don’t understand what they are responding to. This Sunday’s reading from Isaiah points to how it is that we ought to respond to the Light which comes to us.
Light and Darkness
Isaiah, the Shakespeare of the Hebrews, offers us a delicious poetic tension between light and darkness. As he announces the time of Jerusalem’s visitation, he contrasts the shining radiance which the Lord bestows on her to the “thick darkness” under which the rest of the nations suffer. Araphel is the Hebrew word translated as “thick darkness.” Usually, it indicates the fearsome presence of God as on Mount Sinai (Exod 20:21), but here in the prophetic literature it seems to more precisely indicate his judgment (cf. Joel 2:2). The difference between Jerusalem and the world is that Jerusalem will be mercifully blessed and the world will be judged. While the ancient exile of the Jews seemed like an irreversible curse, it will actually turn out for blessing (Isa 60:10). The Lord temporarily chastised his people, but soon will overwhelm them with light so bright that they too become radiant: “Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall thrill and rejoice” (Isa 60:5 RSV). The darkness of judgment gives way to the radiance of mercy, which opens up to receive the flood of pilgrims from all nations to worship the Lord at Jerusalem.
Jerusalem possesses a kind of centripetal force, which draws people from all over the world. Even today pilgrims from the three great monotheistic religions—Christianity, Judaism and Islam—make the journey to the ancient city for worship. Isaiah portrays a glorious future for Jerusalem, where the wealth of the nations is brought to her doorstep. In one way, this hope is brought to fulfillment with the arrival of the magi at the stable of Bethlehem, the epiphany, the shining of the light, to the nations. Isaiah forecasts that peoples from Midian, Ephah and Sheba (modern day Saudi Arabia and Yemen) will visit with “gold and frankincense” (60:6)—though western tradition often identifies the magi as originating more widely in India, Persia, and Arabia. Isaiah’s prophecy is beautifully and literally fulfilled in the magi, but it has an even longer reach. The arrival of the magi takes on prophetic undertones, as a harbinger of the coming conversion of the Gentiles. The magi are merely the first-fruits of the millions upon millions of Gentiles who will flock to the light and come to worship at the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:2).
Responding to Glory
The glorious light of the little baby at Bethlehem demands a response. If it is really true that God became man and was born of a virgin in a humble stable, then we can’t just sit on our hands. Epiphany sets the stage for us. The magi did the right thing. They journeyed hundreds of miles on uncomfortable camels through desert wilderness to make their offerings before him. Isaiah pictures the sons and daughters of Israel who had been scattered among the nations, returning to the Holy Land. It seems the sons are on foot and “your daughters shall be carried in the arms” (Isa 60:4). Unfortunately, the translators have a hard time with the last part of this verse—it more literally says that they will be “supported/confirmed on the side/hip.” That is, like little children, they will be carried home. While Isaiah is on one level talking about the return of the Jews to the Promised Land after the exile in Babylon, his invitation to come to Jerusalem finds a new level of fulfillment in the visit of the magi and an awesome future destiny in the final pilgrimage we all hope to make. The light invites and calls. Its glory draws us in and we can respond to it in a spirit of pilgrimage.
Insects look rather silly to us when they attack a lamp with buzzing force and bounce off. After a century of electric lights, they still don’t understand what they are looking at. But we know what the magi were after, why they sought out the “true light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9). It is why we think of our earthly life as a journey—a journey out of the darkness and into the light. It is why we can embrace pilgrimage as a way of ritually enacting the spiritual reality of our situation. Whether we fly to Israel or Rome or Lourdes or hike the Camino or just drive to our diocese’s cathedral or shrine or parish, we are taking up the spirit of the same path that the magi were on. We are still seeking him, still being drawn by him, still responding to the Light. The centripetal force of Jerusalem still tugs at our hearts and we can only respond to it by moving out of the dark and into the light.