Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
3 Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,[a]
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
The Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season starts in darkness and ends in light. This follows the cycle of the natural world in the northern hemisphere.
It’s in the darkness that the living are renewed through rest and fresh possibilities. The darkness is where we are awake to the quiet. The darkness is the womb of Mary, where Christ grows.
Advent waits patiently for nativity.
And Jesus is born… into a world where emperors make decrees about census counts. A world of people on the move, back and forth to ancestral lands, making pilgrimage to temples, visiting far off relatives, fleeing violence. It’s a world of agriculture. Wild grasses have become wheat and barley, wild beasts have become herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, foraging people have settled down and claimed lands to build, to farm, to accumulate wealth, to defend. Jesus is born into a swirl of animals and angels, people hungry for food and kings hungry for power.
Nativity widens into Epiphany.
The prophet Isaiah lived well before Jesus, but the times weren’t all that different. In words that have become an annual reading for the church’s celebration of Epiphany, Isaiah prophesies light: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Despite outward appearances, Isaiah assures the people that the light is already in the process of breaking through, if they only lift up their eyes and look around.
After counseling the people to look and see the light, The Jewish Publication Society poetically translates verse five of Isaiah 60 in this way: “As you behold, you will glow; Your heart will throb and thrill.”
Behold is one of those great biblical words that has become underemployed in the modern world, along with thee and thou and begotten and smite. To behold something is to perceive in such a way as to allow the presence of that thing to affect one’s own disposition, one’s inner self. To behold another person is to allow the presence of that person into one’s field of consciousness. Beholding is an intimate, vulnerable act. To behold another, one must allow the protective membrane around oneself to be softened. When we behold, neither we nor that which we behold go away unchanged. Beholding involves an intersection of presence.
Isaiah dares the people to behold the light whose source is God. It’s a call to behold that which precedes emperors and their empires, commanders and their armies, even people, plants, and animals, domesticated and wild. To behold the light whose source is God is to be in the presence of that which brought the world into being, out of which all things have been made.
My thoughts on this are no doubt influenced by the week between Christmas and New Years with Abbie’s family in Kansas. Kansas, as you may know, is not particularly close to Ohio, and the small town of Quinter, in western Kansas, is not particularly close to an airport. 14 hours of driving each way provides ample time for rumination and audio books. That, mixed with the wide open landscape of the high plains, makes for a mentally and visually uncluttered week. For years now I have experienced this regular annual trip as a mental reset. It helps that it coincides with the closing out of one year and beginning of another. For this native Ohioan, a week in Kansas is a palate cleanser in between chews on the buffet of life.
The themes for reading and listening material for this year’s trip were the geology of North America, and the origins of the universe and solar system. Or maybe that’s the same theme: a big zoom out from the present moment to remind oneself of the bigger context: millions, and billions of years of context.
Take a break from beholding the daily headlines. Behold, the stars in which the elements of your body were created. Behold, the glaciated Midwestern soil under your feet which blankets the ancient geological core of North America. It’s enough to makes one’s heart throb and thrill.
Vocals: Of the Father’s love begotten (v. 1 re-write)
Of the perfect love begotten, ere the worlds began to be, they are Alpha and Omega, they the source, the ending they, of the things that are and have been, and that future years shall see, evermore and evermore.
Congregational humming: Of the Father’s love begotten, 1x through
Reading: Matthew 2:1-15
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph[h] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
As Matthew tells it, it is the act of beholding the stars that brings the wise men to Jerusalem, and eventually Bethlehem. The magi were a class of intellectuals whose sources of knowledge included stargazing. They were astrologers. Tradition says they were from Persia, modern day Iran. They stand in a long line of people who have looked to the stars to make sense of things happening closer at hand. In their observations, they see something unusual, check it against their meticulous records, and decide to saddle up for a trip west. Millions of years of geological activity between them and the Mediterranean had made for a difficult trip.
Within Matthew’s narrative, the visit of the magi to Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus serves as an announcement that what has just happened in Bethlehem is more than just a local phenomenon. Jesus is Jewish through and through, and will remain so cradle to grave. These magi from the east are the first non-Jews to honor Jesus. They come from afar and represent the global, even cosmic significance of the one who would come to be called the Christ. They find him not by abandoning their own wisdom and culture, but by beholding the truth within what they and their people had studied for centuries.
What Jesus has to offer is for everyone. The light he embodies illuminates everything and everyone willing to behold it.
We aren’t told how they experience that encounter with the infant Jesus. The Scriptures are mostly uninterested in the psychology of their characters. Whatever it was they were expecting, what they saw in Bethlehem would have been entirely unremarkable, all things considered. Jesus is a human child. The carbon and oxygen in his Jewish body were sourced from the same cores of stars that produced the carbon and oxygen in the Persian bodies of the stargazing magi.
Another way of putting it would be that Jesus was remarkable because of his humanity, as are other children, whether Jewish or Persian or otherwise.
The magi do seem to have an experience that resembles the act of beholding. Matthew says “On entering the house, they saw Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” They give their gifts.
Let’s say they do behold Jesus. Let’s say they allowed the presence to enter deeply into their field of consciousness. Let’s say that within that room there was an intersection of presence. Let’s imagine that the protective membrane around those foreigners, everything that made them separate and other than the holy family softened. Let’s imagine that the magi had spent a fair amount of their travels preparing themselves for the possibility of being changed, and that they, now empty handed, gifts given, received a gift they carried with them when they returned home. They had beheld the light in the way Isaiah had counseled his people many centuries prior.
Let’s imagine that those who then beheld them shared in that presence. Let’s imagine that we who are also foreigners have inherited the light of that presence, passed down through generations by those who have held and honored and shared it.
But there’s more going on in this story.
Behold Herod. Behold that which will not behold the other and recognize the sacred in that other. Which seeks to dominate and control. Behold, if you will, if you can stomach it, one more refugee story. Mary and Joseph fleeing with Jesus for their lives to escape Herod, given sanctuary in the foreign land of Egypt. The magi, disobeying Herod’s orders to be informers about Jesus’ location, going home by another route.
Vocals: Of the Father’s love begotten (v. 2-3 re-write)
By the word was all created. They commanded and twas done. Earth and sky and boundless ocean, universe of Three-in-One. All that sees the moon’s soft radiance, all that breathes beneath the sun, evermore and evermore.
This the one whom seers in old time chanted of with one accord, whom the voices of the prophets promised in their faithful word. Now it shines, the long expected. Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore.
Congregational humming: Of the Father’s love begotten, 1x through
Reading: Ephesians 3:7-13
Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. 8 Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make everyone see[a] what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him
On this Epiphany Sunday, I invite you to ponder what it is you are in the habit of beholding. How does that impact your spirit? How does that affect the way you relate with others? After a calendar year ending palate cleanse and mental reset, I find it a little easier to notice what I’m in the habit of beholding. Speaking for myself, I know to stay sane and centered I need the warmth of family and friendship. I need the perspective that comes with knowing that everything we are is a rich inheritance billions of years old. I need to remember that, geologically speaking, we are insignificant dust, and theologically speaking, we are radiant presence. I find both of those things comforting. I know it’s essential to not look away from the violence of our world, the spirit of Herod still causing refugees and horrible injustices. To behold that. To actually let that sink in and be discomforted by that. And to behold the light and things that cause my heart to throb and thrill.
For many years I’ve found this passage in Ephesians which also goes with Epiphany to be jolting and half-comical. Essentially, the writer says there’s a great big mystery that’s been hidden since the universe started expanding, but now there’s something that is going to make that mystery known to the whole cosmos, and that thing is… the church.
As someone who spends a fair amount of my time with the church, well aware of our limitations and shortcomings, I want to say to this writer: Are you out of your mind? It’s got to be one of the most optimistic views out there of what the church can be.
But I think I have an idea what he might be getting at, especially if we expand that notion of church in a very ecumenical multifaith kind of way. To keep it in this beholding framework, what I think this passage might be saying is that when a group of people behold the holy, when they carry that presence with them in such a way that it infiltrates the way they think and talk and relate with each other and especially relate with those considered by many to be ‘other,’ that this carries a message, it broadcasts a signal, and this love that was from the very beginning, of the perfect love begotten ere the world began to be, that love is the great mystery that we carry and that is made known through us, which is what church is at its core. Where there are people in Christ-like relationship, there is the church.
We behold, and whether we like it or not, we are beheld by others.
Our sanctuary work has helped me understand this in a new way. We live in a time in which our government openly practices “enhanced interrogation techniques” against our enemies, and “extreme vetting” of immigrants and refugees. And so it seems we are responding by openly practicing enhanced welcoming techniques, and extreme hospitality. And I can tell you that people around the state and country are taking notice and that it’s further opening our eyes to what matters. To put it in the lofty language of Ephesians, it might even be “the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” Now being made known. To put it in terms of Matthew’s nativity, it’s the thing the magi came seeking, which they carried home with them, which Herod could not overcome. To put it in the words of the prophet Isaiah, it’s the light which has come.
Christ is born. God is with us. We behold the presence, and the mystery is made known, evermore and evermore.
Vocals: Of the Father’s love begotten (v. 4 re-write)
O ye heights of heav’n adore them, angel hosts, their praises sing. Powers, dominions, fall before them, and extol our God and king. Let no tongue on earth keep silent, every voice in concert ring, evermore and evermore.
Congregational humming: Of the Father’s love begotten, 1x through