January marks the start of the Epiphany season in the Church. Everyone is familiar with the word “epiphany” in common parlance – to have an epiphany means to have a sudden revelation or insight; it is when the lightbulb turns on above your head. When you turn the light on, it illuminates all around you – you can see things you could not see before. This common understanding of the word “epiphany” also teaches us about the spiritual reality of the Epiphany season.
God is light, as John writes in his first letter – and by the light of a star He manifested His only Son to the peoples of the earth. And when His Son comes again, shining the light of perfect Truth and Justice to judge the earth, “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known… whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light” Jesus warns in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 12:1-3).
Light can be revealing, but it can also be blinding. Our eyes can only take in so much light. Anyone who has driven with the sun in his face understands this. Even with sunglasses on, the light of the sun is too much to look at directly. You need to close your eyes, or shield them, or look away.
Man cannot see the fullness of God’s glory and live (remember how God would only reveal his hind-parts to Moses on the mountain), but with eyes of faith we can gaze upon the light of Christ without fear. This is the mystery of God’s light: for those who wish to seek it, as did the wise men, it cannot be obscured, while those who deny it cover their eyes, seeing it nowhere. And when we look upon Christ with the eyes of faith, we ourselves are illumined, shining with the glory of God, multiplying his light throughout the world.
This is the fulfillment of our first reading for Epiphany from the book of Isaiah – the mission of the Church as a ministry of reflected light:
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you… the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you… then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult.”Isaiah 60:1-2, 5
For we can boast of nothing except for that which Christ is working in us. The light is not ours, nor is the glory ours – but it is exactly in this reality that we should rejoice, for it is the joy of the Church to be the body of the One who is the Light of the World.
The Incarnation Shines Throughout History
Pope Benedict’s recent death has prompted me to revisit some of his old writings and works with renewed appreciation, while also learning of the many ways his love for Christ saturated his teachings and strengthened the faith of millions the world over.
Much of Benedict’s work defended Christianity as the intersection of both faith and reason, with both being compatible and necessary parts of the Christian life. As one commentator points out, it is fitting that Benedict’s baptismal liturgy was on the Great Vigil of Easter, and his funeral liturgy on the Vigil of the Epiphany – his life touching upon both the light of faith and the light of reason.
The Epiphany had a special place in the heart of Pope Benedict, made evident by his homilies on the feast day, which come across as especially memorable.
In his Epiphany homily from 2006, he described the light of Christ as shining forth in concentric circles from the Nativity: First, on the Holy Family (the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph), and the the light of the Redeemer is manifested to the shepherds of Bethlehem. Benedict said:
“The shepherds, together with Mary and Joseph, represent that ‘remnant of Israel,’ the poor, the anawim, to whom the Good News was proclaimed. Finally, Christ’s brightness shines out, reaching the Magi who are the first-fruits of the pagan peoples.”Pope Benedict XVI, Epiphany Homily 2006
He went on:
“In the mystery of the Epiphany, therefore, alongside an expanding outward movement, a movement of attraction toward the [center] is expressed which brings to completion the movement already written in the Old Covenant. The source of this dynamism is God, One in Three Persons… [and Jesus] is the ultimate destination of history, the point of arrival of an “exodus”, of a providential journey of redemption that culminates in his death and Resurrection.”Pope Benedict XVI, Epiphany Homily 2006
Christmas and Epiphany are inseparable, two bookends of the fullness of God’s manifestation to mankind. Christ was revealed first to the Jews, and then to the Gentiles, both united in his Passion on the cross.
The Church’s Ministry of Reflected Light
In our Second Reading (for Epiphany) from Ephesians, Paul goes on to further explain his role in this mystery:
“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”Ephesians 3:8-10
Notice the language Paul uses: his job is to “bring to light” God’s plan for salvation. “Through the church” the light of God’s wisdom – made manifest in Jesus Christ – is reflected throughout the world. Are we not also part of the Church? Then Paul’s job is also our job – to make the Gospel known throughout the world.
The Epiphany has not ended; it shines forth to this day, radiating out from the day of Christ’s Incarnation; it is the very reason we as Gentiles can share in the riches of Christ’s inheritance. This means that we who have received this light have the responsibility to both continually seek its source and reflect it so that others may do the same.
As Pope Benedict said in his 2006 homily, “[The Church] is called to make Christ’s light shine in the world, reflecting it in herself as the moon reflects the light of the sun.”
Beloved, will we now, like the wise men after visiting the Christ child, go a different way from our life before Christ? May we follow God’s command to arise and shine before all peoples, for “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
This article was adapted from a sermon given by the Rev. Nathan Stomberg on the Feast of the Epiphany, observed January 8th, 2023.
Image: Rafael, The Transfiguration (1516-1520), detail