The first Sunday of the New Year is Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany is about “light” and “illumination.” Two dictionary definitions define it as 1) “a Christian festival, observed on Jan. 6, commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi” and 2) ”a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something.”
It was a light (star) that the Magi followed to find the location of the Christ child. It was a visit to King Herod that “illuminated” them about the predicted birthplace of the Messiah. A visit to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem enlightened them on the whereabouts as well as the improbable status of Messiah — a vulnerable baby not surrounded by the trappings of royalty.
A dream illumined the Magi to return home without reporting what they found to Herod. That resulted in a response by Herod to bring the darkness of premature death to those families unfortunate enough to also have given birth at about the same time as Mary and Joseph, residing in or around Bethlehem. Not everyone seeks light. Not everyone desires more illumination. Some seem to prefer the darkness.
Recently the darkness of premature death rained down on our country as well. There is something especially heinous about the murdering of defenseless children. The unfolding account in Matthew’s Gospel offers one response to the desire to bring more darkness into the world. In our country there is an animated debate about appropriate responses to the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. So far that debate has generated more heat than light.
Of course this is a different day than the time in which Jesus lived. The totalitarian milieu of Palestine in Jesus’ day didn’t allow for a citizenry to push back against Herod’s decisions and actions in the ways that are available to us today in our context. Today we have the opportunity to respond rather than to react in a reflexive way to the events that have unfolded before us. It is interesting that the Nickel Mines shooting (and the resultant response of the Amish community at that time) has not surfaced (to my knowledge) as an appropriate alternative in this most recent school shooting.
Joseph and Mary lived under no illusion that they could guarantee the safety and protection of their son. They were led by a dream to flee Bethlehem until the dark danger passed. Do some of our proposed “solutions” to wanton violence betray the illusion that we believe we can guarantee the safety of those we love?
There was much mystery that surrounded the arrival and birth of our Lord and Savior. But those entrusted with the tremendous responsibility of caring for and nurturing this infant into adulthood decided to follow the light that brought the Magi to them. This light was God’s Presence illuminating their path. They lived by faith. And the light that shone upon Bethlehem showered them with sufficient illumination to guide their footsteps day by day. Perhaps that’s the way it should be regardless of what era we live in, regardless of what political context we find ourselves in. Recognizing in whom (or what) we place our trust testifies to the true foundation of our faith. Are we following the light, or are we comfortable living in darkness?