by Lynne Baab
“Wow, I just had an epiphany,” someone says.
“What’s that?” a friend responds.
“You know, a bit of a revelation. I suddenly see something in a new light . . .”
As we celebrate the Christian feast day of Epiphany, it is helpful to consider the parallels between the common use of the word “epiphany” and the historic Christian understanding of Epiphany connected to the story of the Magi, or wise men.
An epiphany is a revelation or manifestation of something previously hidden or unclear. At Epiphany we remember that God revealed something through the magi that was previous hidden. What previously hidden thing are we talking about?
Throughout the Old Testament, God desired that the people of Israel be a “light to the nations.” In one of the Servant Songs in Isaiah, God says, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple vividly but briefly reflects God’s concern for the whole earth. Solomon prays for foreigners who will come to the Temple to pray, asking that God would answer their prayers so that “all peoples of the earth may know your name” (2 Chronicles 6:32-33). If you have any doubt that God’s intent from the beginning was to enfold all people, read Psalm 96 and count the number of times all the peoples of the earth are mentioned.
God desired that the people of Israel make known to the nations God’s power and love. The people of Israel hardly ever rose to the task. In fact, they kept God’s love for the nations hidden, either through willful disobedience or through lack of understanding of the significance of the truth they had been entrusted with.
In Christ, this hidden love of God for all people would be revealed more fully, and the first hint of that revelation is the arrival of the magi. The story of the magi in Matthew 2:1-12 gives a glimmer of God’s intent that Jesus, this incarnate God, would fulfill Israel’s purpose of being a light to the nations.
The magi were Gentiles. They came from “the East,” possibly from what is now Saudi Arabia or Iran. They were not people who worshipped the one true God; instead they were astrologers who looked to the stars for guidance. The people of Israel had not fulfilled God’s purpose to be a light to the nations, so the stars spoke to the magi about the significance of the birth of this baby!
At Jesus’ baptism in the temple, the beautiful old man Simeon understood the significance for all nations of this baby. Simeon says:
My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light of revelation for the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:30-32)
The notion of light appears so frequently in these stories. The wise men travel by the light of a star. The nation of Israel was called to be a light to the nations. Simeon sees that Jesus will be that light, foreshadowing Jesus’ words about being the light of the world (John 8:12). And part of the meaning of the word “epiphany” is to see things in a new light. The light of Jesus, revealed at Epiphany, highlights something that had been hidden: God loves all the people, of all the nations, on earth.
I invite you to spend some time reflecting on 2016.
- Did you see anything about God in a new light in 2016?
- Did you see anything new about God’s love for all nations?
- For 2017, what would you like to pray for with respect to God’s light and God’s love for all peoples?