A NEW LIGHT TO SHINE IN OUR HEARTS
A SERMON BY PASTOR CHICO MARTIN
Lections: Isa 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-7, 10-14; Eph 3:1-12; Matt 2: 1-12
Darshan is a Sanskrit word that means “vision” or “sight,” and especially, the seeing of a holy image or saintly person. Hindu worshipers believe a reverent glimpse of holiness confers a blessing that can alter the outcome of a lifetime. The encounter with a holy person is called “receiving darshan,” and there are numerous stories of saints granting an audience to pilgrims who journey over great distances to be in their presence. The journey of the magi can be viewed as one such pilgrimage. The sleeping child in Bethlehem, “without uttered words, by the very fact of His infancy united to His Divine Person” displays God’s “life of love” the love He shows toward us, and “the unbounded generosity of God’s mercy.” “In some mysterious way,” writes one contemporary Catholic theologian, “this infant form, in all its fragile finitude, is an exquisitely appropriate instrument for disclosing the infinite attributes of God.”[i]
It is helpful, I think, on Epiphany, to borrow an unfamiliar illustration of the festival’s event, because, as Hindu religious practices are foreign to Christians, the wise men who arrived at the Bethlehem cave were strangers to the Jewish tradition of the child. They journeyed from the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, where Yemen and Oman meet today, following a star and bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to bless the Divine Child who is “the King of Glory.” Their modern day descendants are Muslim, not Jewish or Christian. This seems good to remember, in our troubled time, when Jews and Christians are so quick to demonize Muslims. The Jewish Messiah, rejected by His own people, was visited by pilgrims from the margins of the world, from the land of Ephah and Midian and Sheba; new-born, lying in the feeding trough that was his crib, the Divine Child gave darshan to the strangers who made their pilgrimage to Israel with camels and dromedaries and the guidance of a unique star. “Lo, sages from the East are gone, to where the star hath newly shone: Led on by light to Light they press, and by their gifts their God confess.”[ii]
King Herod, the Ruler of Judea, was guided, not by a star, but by Holy Scripture, the same Scripture we honor as the Old Testament Word of God, yet he sought neither to confer blessings nor receive blessings from the Divine Child. Instead, fearing a challenge to his power, he declared the Divine Child his enemy. The chief priests and scribes who advised him interpreted the Jewish Scriptures as prophesizing the Messiah’s birth; they read the same text from Isaiah as we do. They knew that a king greater than theirs had been born.
The manifestation of the God-child instructs us first, that Jesus is “the light of all peoples” who put their trust in him, for He was rejected by the Jews and believed in by strangers; and second, that where we have no church, we can find God by reading the signs of his creation. As Herod had the advantage of Scripture – and power – and the wise men had the advantage of a Star – and wealth – we have the advantage of the church: we can claim solidarity with the impoverished and the powerless. We are co-heirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
The magi, having completed their pilgrimage, blessed the Divine Child with “gold as to a king, frankincense as sacrifice to God, myrrh as embalming the body of the dead,”[iii] then departed for their country and disappeared from Scripture. Likewise, we, choosing a life in the church, disappear from the vainglory (and politics) of wealth and leisure, and find peace, in the refuge of the God we bless, at the margins of the world, in the modern day equivalents of lands “whence camels and dromedaries would come to Israel.”
The star appearing in the sky has its counterpart within us; we are moved by a new light to seek the Light of Christ that shines in our hearts. In the works of creation and the Word of Scripture we follow the call of the God who speaks to us; we “run with the Star” and bear our “gifts with the magi.”[iv] The Gospel focuses our attention and nourishes us, and “especially enables us to encounter the living Jesus, to experience him and his love.”[v] On this Sunday, “the church wants to show us the appearing of the lord, so a star may arise within us, to lead us to the Bethlehem above.”[vi]
Epiphany is a festival of lights: the Light of Christ, the light of the star, and the light within us. Light is creation’s visible sign of the invisible God; it is at once a symbol and more than a symbol for God. When we see a new light, we see God in a new way. Light stands in for God. Because God is invisible, it is necessary for some visible phenomena to represent God to our understanding and contemplation; so the visible phenomena, light, takes the place of the invisible person, God. Whenever we see light, we are seeing at least a faint representation of God. Otherwise, we might mistake the gloom of rain for God; but when we hurry through rain, our thoughts don’t naturally go to God. Light shares qualities of the Divine that rain’s gloom cannot convey. Light clarifies the vision rain obscures. Light makes us feel ebullient, but when it rains, we become depressed. Light is as bright as a diamond sky; rain snarls, like a threatening animal.
Epiphany indeed is a festival of lights: the time of year when, in the presence of the Divine Child, “receiving darshan,” we dedicate the interiority of our flesh as the Temple of God; but Epiphany is also a feast set within shadows of human wickedness. The darkness of the world lures us with deceit. Darkness is the territory of the vanquished: a pretense of strength. Darkness conspires to overthrow light, but the Great Work has been accomplished, with Light triumphant, “for faith is the light of the soul.”[vii]
[i] John Saward, Cradle of Redeeming Love: The Theology of the Christmas Mystery (SF: Ignatius Press, 2002), 246
[iii] Gregory the Great, quoted in John Saward, ibid, 340
[iv] Gregory Nazianzen, quoted in John Saward, ibid, 55
[v] Pope Francis, “Homily On the Feast of the Epiphany,” Jan 6, 2014: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/journey-of-the-magi-symbolizes-destiny-of-man-says-pope/
[vi] Anonymous, quoted in John Saward, ibid, 30
[vii] John Chrysostom, quoted by Thomas Aquinas, in John Saward, ibid, 337