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I imagine the captured Israelites expected their return home to be an epiphany—an immediate burst of light to drive out all the darkness of captivity and exile. They must have dreamed for years about a glorious and triumphant return to their home country. The jubilant parades and the “welcome home” banners stretched across gleaming cobblestone streets. Their old houses ready and waiting; their old jobs available for the re-taking; their old friends sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for them to come back. Once they returned to their homeland, everything would be wonderful and perfect–just like that. A spectacular event. An epiphany!
That’s the kind of epiphany we all want, I think. The immediate, all-illuminating light. We seem particularly prone to these fantasies at the beginning of the new year, when we imagine the radical changes we will make to drastically improve our lives. We’ll get healthy and wealthy and spiritual and organized—just like that.
We want the shining star, the voice from heaven, the glory of the Lord. We want immediate light and definitive revelation. We want our loved ones (or ourselves) to be healed, our bodies to be toned, our jobs to be fulfilling, our bank accounts to be large, our children to behave, our relationships to be whole—just like that. . . .
But instead the light usually comes as a glimmer rather than a bright explosion. Because people—individually and as a society—we rarely change quickly; circumstances rarely alter immediately for the better. Deep darknesses of inequality and injustice and violence won’t disappear in a sudden burst of light. It didn’t happen for the ancient Israelites, and it won’t happen for us.
True, Epiphany is more than an interlude, but it is also more than an event. The shining star, the voice from heaven, the glory of the Lord—these are events, yes; but they are events that mark the beginning—that suggest the possibility—of a season of Epiphany; a journey toward revelation; a gradual brightening of the light.
One of the blessed, beautiful things about light is that it doesn’t take much of it to make a big difference. (I’m probably not the only one who has been irritated by the glow of a cell phone screen in an otherwise darkened auditorium.)
Despite the dilapidated buildings, the social unrest, the temple in ruins, a prophet declared to the people of Israel: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.”
Turns out that our light does not come from us or depend on us. Our light is the light of God; the Divine light that shines for all people. It is a light that draws people—and camels, apparently–to it—maybe sometimes because it is so bright; but I think, most often, people are drawn to the light no matter how dim it is; simply because it is there, promising to dispel the thick darkness, promising to reveal, slowly, in hazy glimpses, a better way.
So may we truly live into this season of Epiphany. May we arise and shine knowing that our light has come; that our light is here; that our light—which is God’s light–will always be shining no matter how thick the darkness. Amen.