Sunday, January 05, 2014

Between Diamonds & Charcoal

Solemnity of The Epiphany of The Lord

Picture: cc Kim Alaniz

Sisters and brothers, what do you think? What’s the difference between a diamond and a lump of charcoal? I know. Sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it? Silly, because, the differences are so obvious. For one thing, there is a clear difference in value. Given a choice, I’m quite sure any of us would much rather have a diamond than a lump of charcoal. Unless, of course, we happen to find ourselves at one of those auctions held, in the 7th month of the Lunar Calendar, to celebrate the Festival of Hungry Ghosts. Otherwise there really is no comparison. Diamonds are far more valuable than charcoal.

And, along with this difference in value, there is also a radical difference in appearance. A diamond is valuable not just because it’s rare. But also because it’s beautiful. It sparkles. When light shines on a diamond, the diamond is able to somehow reflect and to bend the light in such a way as to magnify it. To accentuate it. To make it even more brilliant. More dazzling. In contrast, charcoal just looks like... well... charcoal. It's black and dull and dirty. Instead of sparkling in the light, charcoal seems just to smother it. To suck it in. Much like what the scientists tell us a black hole does.

And yet, sisters and brothers, as you know, despite being so different in value and in appearance, diamonds and charcoal actually share exactly the same chemical composition. They are both made up of the same stuff. Carbon. Why then do they look so different? Why do they react so differently to light? The differences are due not to composition, but to arrangement. The carbon atoms are arranged differently in a diamond than they are in a lump of charcoal. Arranged one way, the carbon sparkles in the light. Arranged in another, it smothers it.

I mention all this not to show off my knowledge of chemistry. All this information is easily available on the internet. I mention all this because I think it can help us to enter more deeply into what we are celebrating today. As you know, the solemn feast of the Epiphany of the Lord is all about light. Epiphany means manifestation. Revelation. As we heard in the second reading just now, something that was unknown to any men in past generations has now been brought to light. And that something is, of course, the immensity of God’s love. God’s love expressed in the coming of Christ at Christmas. God’s love not just for the people of Israel. Not just for the Jewish nation. But for all peoples. For all nations. Christ comes into the world for everyone. For you, for me, for all. It is no accident then that the wise men in the gospel are all foreigners. Gentiles. In their experience, we see how God’s love shines out for people everywhere.

But in order for the light of God’s love to shine out more brightly for all the world to see, people need to react to the light in appropriate ways. In the first reading, the light of God’s glory is shining down on the city of Jerusalem. God is finally going to free the city and its people from their enemies. And the prophet Isaiah tells Jerusalem the proper way for it to react to the light. The city is told to arise and to shine out. To lift up its eyes and look around. To see for itself how people of all nations are streaming towards it, attracted by the glory of God. The city is encouraged to allow this awesome sight to make it grow radiant. To make its heart throbbing and full. In other words, Jerusalem is being asked to react to the light in the same way that a diamond would. To sparkle and to dazzle. To magnify and to accentuate the light. To make it even more brilliant for all the world to see.

We find a similar kind of reaction in the second reading. Here, St. Paul writes about having received a revelation from God. A revelation of the great mystery of God’s love found in Jesus Christ. The same mystery that we are celebrating at this Mass. A mystery that is meant not just for Jews, but for Gentiles as well. Paul received this revelation at his conversion. When the light of the crucified and risen Christ shone down upon him (cf. Acts 9:3) while he was on the road to Damascus. And now, Paul continues to react to the light in the same way that Jerusalem is told to react in the first reading. In the same way that a diamond reacts. Through his writings and his preaching, by tirelessly sharing the Good News of God’s love with many people, Paul allows himself to sparkle. To dazzle. To magnify the light. To accentuate its brilliance. Rendering it even more accessible and attractive to others.

But not everyone reacts to the light as a diamond does. There are others whose reactions are more like that of charcoal. Isn’t this true of King Herod in the gospel? When the wise foreigners come to consult him, after having been attracted to Jerusalem by the light of the star, Herod helps them. But not because he wants to magnify the light. On the contrary, Herod feels threatened by it. He's perturbed. He wants to smother the light. To get rid of it. To kill it. And not just Herod. But also the chief priests and the scribes. Although these experts are able to tell the wise men where the Messiah is to be born, they themselves make no effort to look for Jesus. Their expertise does not bring them any closer to the light of God’s love. Like Herod, they fail to follow the instructions of Isaiah in the first reading. They fail to grow radiant. They fail to sparkle. They fail to dazzle. The light finds no home within them.

But why, we may ask is there such a difference between the reactions of St. Paul and the Wise Men on the one hand, and Herod and the scribes on the other? Are they not all human beings? People created by the love of God? Why then are some able to sparkle in the light? While others simply ignore it? Or seek only to smother it? As with diamonds and charcoal, perhaps the reason has to do with a difference in arrangement. A difference in how people choose to arrange their lives. If St. Paul and the Wise Men are able to sparkle in the light, isn’t it because they are in touch with their own deep hunger and thirst for Truth? For Goodness? For Love? For God? Their lives are arranged in such a way that God is given top priority. God is allowed to occupy the central place. In contrast, the lives of Herod and the scribes are centred on other things. On other interests. On economics. On politics. On security. Even on religion. And, ultimately, on self-interest. But God is displaced. And the light finds no room to shine.

All of which should lead us to reflect on ourselves. We who live in this city of Singapore. Which continues to attract so many foreigners to its shores. Many of whom come here in search of better material prospects for themselves and their families. People who are attracted by the bright lights of economic success. And yet could it be that this is not the only light we have to offer? Especially we who call ourselves Christian? At Christmas, we are reminded that, like St. Paul, we have been entrusted with a light far greater than money. The light of God’s love made visible in Christ. A light continually shining down upon us and from within us. Meant to be seen and appreciated by all. By local and foreigner alike. But what is our reaction to this light? What are we doing with it? In our daily living, through the things that we do and say. Through the ways in which we react to the daily challenges of life. To what extent do we really allow ourselves to sparkle in the light? Or are we simply smothering it? Like a great lump of charcoal would?

Sisters and brothers, on this solemn feast of the Epiphany, how can we arrange our lives so as to continue to shine out like diamonds in the light of Christ today?


  1. O Lord of the Epiphany,

    Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee....

    Lord, please lead us along the right path, as You did the 3 wise men, as we go in search of You, along the winding paths of our lives, along the darkness of this world, which often do not know nor want to accept You.

    O King of Kings and Lord of Lords, please be born anew in our hearts as we bow down to worship You, the moment we arrive at Your stable.

    Lord, may You make Your Home within our hearts and therein forever abide.

    Come Lord Jesus - Come, Reign in our hearts and in our lives. Amen.

    Sih Ying
    Feast of the Epiphany
    5 January 2014 11.49pm

  2. In the name of God, The entirely merciful, The especially merciful.

    Lovely article my dear brother. May The Lord of all creation guide us all to an eternal abode of which we will remain content. Amen

    Peace be upon you.


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