Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
Picture: cc Rachel Kramer
My dear friends, do you know what a black hole is? I’m sure many of you know better than I do. To understand it better, my simple mind finds it helpful to compare a black hole with the moon. Which often appears to us as a brightly shining object. High up in the sky. This is even though, as we all know, the moon doesn’t actually produce any light or its own. It shines only by reflecting the rays of the sun. And the moon is able to do this because its own gravitational pull is weak. Weak enough to allow the light falling upon it to escape. So that others can see it.
In sharp contrast to the brightly shining moon, however, a black hole is always shrouded in darkness. It does not shine. This is because its gravity is so strong that any light falling upon it is instantly absorbed by it. Sucked into the black hole itself. Unable to escape. As a result, the black hole remains invisible.We know it’s there only by observing its effects on the objects around it.
The moon, because of its weakness, is able to reflect the sun’s light. But a black hole is simply too strong to shine. My dear friends, don’t you find this contrast striking? And more than just an interesting tidbit, I think that this difference between a black hole and a brightly shining moon can actually help us to better understand what is being asked of us, on this solemn feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. For, in each of our readings today, we find people being challenged to respond appropriately when God’s light shines upon them.
The context of the first reading is the end of the Exile. For many long years, the people of Jerusalem have been living in darkness. Far away from home. But now they have finally been allowed to return to the Holy City. Now they are being graced once more by God’s life-giving presence. Like the rising sun, the glory of God is shining warmly upon them. How are they to respond? What must they do? The people are told that, like the moon, they should arise and shine out! They should reflect the light of God that is falling upon them. Scripture scholars tell us that this invitation to shine is actually a call to the people to rebuild the Holy City. God’s dwelling place on earth. To rebuild it not just for themselves. But also so that others might be attracted to its radiance. Might come to Jerusalem. And call it home.
The crucial question, that the people in the first reading have to answer, is whether or not they will heed this call. Whether they will be submissive enough, weak enough, to respond positively to God’s plea. To rebuild God’s House. Or whether they will be too stubborn, too strong, to obey. Whether, having themselves already made it back to the safety of Jerusalem, they will now look only to their own comfort and concerns. Instead of working for the benefit of others as well. Those who still remain far away from home. The choice presented by the first reading is clear. Either to shine out. Or to sit back. Either to reflect God’s light like the moon. Or simply to suck it all up. Like a black hole.
We find a similar contrast in the gospel. Here God’s light shines upon the darkness of the world in a marvellously new way. God comes among us as an ordinary human baby. Radiant with God’s mighty power. Seen especially in the baby’s disarming helplessness. Shimmering with God’s immeasurable riches. Expressed eloquently in the baby’s startling poverty. Providing for all those who have been exiled by sin and selfishness, a true home, in the baby’s surprising homelessness…
After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem… This is how the gospel begins. After Jesus had been born… In other words, after the Light had already begun to shine… The gospel then goes on to describe contrasting responses to the Light. On the one hand, there is a group of foreigners from the east, who respond very positively to the coming of the light. And they do this by first spotting its radiance. We saw his star as it rose. A sign that they must have been watching out for its coming. Then, having spotted the Light, they set out courageously, and with great humility and determination, to seek and to find it. And, after having found it, they surrender themselves completely to it. A surrender expressed as much by their falling on their knees in homage, as by the precious gifts that they offer: gold and frankincense and myrrh. A surrender that continues even after they have returned to the places from which they came. By sharing with others the good news of the Light’s coming.
Spotting the light when it shines. Setting out to seek and to find it. And then surrendering wholeheartedly to its radiance. These are the ways by which those wise men from the east demonstrate their wisdom. Ways by which they help to rebuild God’s dwelling place on earth. Ways by which they arise and shine out. Much like how the moon reflects the rays of the sun. And, in so doing, they brighten the way for others as well. Even for the chief priests and scribes of the people. Through their questions, the foreign seekers actually manage to lead the local experts to discover the treasure hidden in their own scriptures.
In contrast, King Herod responds to the light not in weakness and humility, but in stubbornness and insecurity. In deceit and violence. Feeling threatened by the coming of another king, he wants to seek out and to smother the Light. He fails to reflect its brilliance. Even though it is shining out from within his very own backyard. So that, if the wise men are like a brightly shining moon, then Herod must surely be a big black hole.
To shine rather than to smother. This is also the challenge in the second reading. I have been entrusted by God, Paul tells the Ephesians, with the grace he meant for you. In his ministry Paul sees himself as doing nothing more than reflecting the Light who is Christ. A Light meant to be shared with others.
But, my dear sisters and brothers, hasn’t this same Light been entrusted to us as well? Hasn’t it already begun to shine in our own backyards? Especially in the past two weeks of Christmas? And, as we enter Ordinary Time tomorrow, are we not being called to continue sharing this light with others? Especially with those who may remain living in the darkness of exile. Far away from home. Are we not being called, each in our own way, to arise and shine out? To rebuild God’s dwelling place on earth?
I’m reminded of the news feature that I stumbled upon last night, on the BBC channel. It’s about the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music. Whose members have been dispersed by civil war. But many of whom have chosen to remain and continue making music in their war-torn country. As a musician I feel I have a responsibility, one of them said. We have to sing. We have to play… The sound of music is louder than the bombs. It has to be louder. To persevere in sharing the light of music. Even in the darkness of war. Isn’t this what we are being called to do?
My dear friends, a challenging choice is placed before us, as the Christmas season draws to a close today: Having already received the light of Christ, we can now choose either to shine out and to share it with others, or to sit back and smother it. The alternatives are clear: To be a brightly shining moon, or a big black hole. Which will you choose to be in the days ahead?