“Illuminating”

~ Matthew 2:1-12 / Isaiah 60:1-6 ~

The stories of Christmas are resplendent with light. In Luke, the night is filled with light, as angels bring the good news of great joy in the radiance of the glory of the Lord: “And the glory of the Lord shone all around them.” And here in Matthew, the star of Bethlehem shines in the night sky to guide the magi to the place of Jesus’ birth. In the ancient world light was a most powerful symbol. It is a central metaphor to ancient Israel and early Christianity, and Luke and Matthew make the most of that symbol.

Even more, as is evident in the Christmas stories, light shining in the darkness is central. Hence, we light candles at Christmas time. Jesus is born in the dark – in the middle of the night at the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year. This is not about historical time, not about the historical date of Jesus’ birth, but about metaphorical time, symbolic time – sacred time.

We don’t know the day, the month, or even the season of the year of Jesus’ birth; nobody knows. The date of December 25 was not decided upon until the fourth century. Before then, Christians celebrated his birth at different times of the year – March, April, May, and November. But around the year 359 Pope Julius in Rome declared December 25 as the date. He did this to sort of co-opt a Roman winter solstice festival that celebrated the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” The Roman birthday of the sun became the Christian birthday of the Son. And so, the light of the Christ comes at the darkest time of the year.

Associated with this idea of his birth at the time of the winter solstice is the symbolism of it happening at night. Think about some of the Christmas carols we sing:

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining; it is the night of our dear savior’s birth.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Beneath the deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars roll by.  Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.

 It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old.

In the middle of the night, on the longest night of the year, the time of deepest darkness, Jesus is born. The symbolism is powerful. The metaphor is perfect.  He is, as John says, the light of the world.

Light, and its opposite, darkness, have always been universal themes in all religious traditions. It isn’t hard to understand why. Can you imagine how our ancestors experienced night and darkness? That’s not easy for we have to imagine a time before we learned how to illuminate and domesticate the night with artificial light. It wasn’t all that long ago. London was probably the first city to be illumined, perhaps in the 1600s. Not until the late 1700s, only after the invention of gas lighting, did lighting become common in most cities. So also was the case with households. Most common folk could not afford candles until around the year 1800. When night fell, it was dark, very dark. Our ancestors knew darkness in a way that we do not.

So, it’s not hard to see why, over the centuries, the symbolic associations people made with the night and darkness. In the dark, we can’t see, at least very well. So night and darkness have been associated with blindness and limited vision. We easily get lost in the dark; we stumble around and can’t find our way. In the dark, we often are afraid. We don’t know what might be going on: danger may lurk, spirits may be about, evil may be afoot. I remember as a child going to bed a night. The light switch was across the room from my bed. When I turned the light off and the room was doused in darkness I had to run as quickly as possible and jump into my bed before the monsters under my bed could grab my feet. Night is a scary time.

Night and winter go together. The nights become longer, the earth loses its warmth, becoming cold and unfruitful. Darkness, grief, and mourning all seem to go together. Grief is like a dark night, and mourners have worn dark clothing for centuries. The land of the dead is a place of great darkness.

So, it’s no wonder our ancestors valued light, the day. They welcomed the dawn and celebrated the return of light at the winter solstice. And no wonder religious traditions are filled with the language of light – of enlightenment, seeing, awakening, visions, and epiphanies. No wonder ‘glory’ – which means radiance, luminosity – is a central quality of the sacred.

In light of all this – get it, in ‘light’ of all this – it is no wonder that light plays such a significant role in scripture.  The symbolism is rich with sacred meaning. The Old Testament is infused with light symbolism. And no better example then our text from Isaiah for today. The text is addressed to the city, recently destroyed by the Babylonian conquest in 586 BC and now only a humble reminder of its former glory after the return from exile in Babylon. So to a Jerusalem stripped of its glory, the prophet promises God’s glory – and the imagery is full of light:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 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. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

 

Out of this rich symbolism of light, ancient Judaism developed a festival of light. Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration of light as the winter solstice approaches. Beginning in the second century BC, it commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated by a foreign ruler. The rededication of the temple as the home of God’s glory is celebrated as the wintry darkness deepens.

All of this brings us to our gospel story for today. Matthew uses the symbolism of light in his story of the star of Bethlehem that led the magi to the place of Jesus’ birth. Virtually every year you’ll see an article or report in the media that seeks to identify the star of Matthew’s story with some natural phenomenon. A comet, a conjunction of planets, or a nova, have all been suggested. But these attempts are pretty much misguided. That’s because Matthew’s star is a special star. It does not simply shine in the sky; it moves. It not only leads the magi westward to Jerusalem, but then turns and moves south to Bethlehem. There, “it stopped over the place where the child was.” It leads the way to the place of Jesus’ birth with the precision of a global positioning satellite. The story of the star is not about an astronomical phenomenon, but is a statement about the person of Jesus: his birth is the coming of the light that draws wise people to its radiance.

The Christian tradition has called these wise men kings: We Three Kings of Orient Are. But Matthew doesn’t say how many they were or that they were kings. The idea of three comes from the three gifts they bring: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The notion that they were kings comes from an echo of the Isaiah passage we read earlier. There we read that “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” We don’t know if Matthew had Isaiah 60 in mind when he wrote his story. Did he pick two of the gifts mentioned in Isaiah for his wise men? Was he deliberately echoing Isaiah? We don’t know. But one thing is clear: he deliberately meant that these wise men, these magi, were Gentiles. They are Gentiles from the “nations.” Wise men from the nations are drawn to the light of Jesus, kneel before him, and pay him homage. The nations acknowledge one born “King of the Jews”; he is their King as well. That is Matthew’s message.

So the uses of light and darkness play a huge role in the symbolic story of Jesus’ birth; they are many and rich. Jesus’ birth is the coming of light into the darkness. But the darkness seeks to extinguish the light (Herod’s plot to kill Jesus). Drawn to the light, wise men from the nations pay homage to Jesus. Jesus is the light of the nations. The imagery is rich, indeed. No number of explanations can capture all of the meanings of this story. We just need to let the story speak for itself.

Illuminating, isn’t it? At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be – illuminating. May each of us experience the luminosity, that is the glory, of God’s grace as we live out our faith. May the paths of faith we travel be brightly illuminated with God’s peace. May our experience of the Christ be a continual moment of epiphany as we work God’s justice in the land. Amen.

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