If ever there were a perfect text for the meaning behind the feast of the Epiphany, surely it is the Third Song of Isaiah (Canticle 11, BCP p. 87), taken from Isaiah 60.
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.
For behold, darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples.
But over you the Lord will rise, and his glory will appear upon you.
Nations will stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning.
Your gates will always be open; by day or night they will never be shut.
They will call you, The City of the Lord, The Zion of the Holy One of Israel.
Violence will no more be heard in your land, ruin or destruction within your borders.
You will call your walls, Salvation, and all your portals, Praise.
The sun will no more be your light by day; by night you will not need the brightness of the moon.
The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.
Darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples. When Mary and Joseph were en route from Nazareth to Bethlehem it was surely the case that darkness and gloom were in control. God’s people sensed that they were still in exile, that “restoration” was a cruel joke, that the false gods and oppressive powers had the upper hand. Into this milieu a totally new kind of king was born.
Nations will stream to your light; kings to the brightness of your dawning. As Anglican New Testament scholar NT Wright ceaselessly points out, this “business” about the “nations” began way back with Abraham. It was then, with Abram (as he was then called) that YHWH first announced that his work in and through his covenant people was to bless the whole world, all nations on the earth. “In you,” God promised the Father of our Faith, “all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” And so it is, that when we see these strange magician-kings bearing gifts to and worshipping the babe in the manger, we are literally seeing the fulfillment of that prophetic thread which is woven throughout the Old Covenant Scriptures.
They will call you the City of the Lord, the Holy One of Israel. Duke New Testament Scholar Richard Hays, in his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, writes persuasively that the fulfillment of the Old Covenant occurs not simply in the man Jesus Christ but also in his Body, the Church. The New Covenant ecclesia (the Greek word for “church”) in which God’s people meet, no longer in Central Zion Proper, but now decentralized all over the globe, is this “City of the Lord.” When black people, white people, rich people, poor people, conservative people, liberal people, etc. etc. gather in Eucharistic fellowship with the Baptized Faithful, it is then that the “nations [are streaming] to your light.”
The Sun will no more be your light by day; by night you will not need the brightness of the moon. When I tuck Bella and Ellie into bed each night, just after we finish our prayers, they always remind me to turn on the nightlight (which sometimes turns out to be the light in the bathroom next to their room). However, on those rare occasions when these little girlies persuade me (or their Mommy) to sleep with them all night, this infantile need for a nightlight disappears. In the very same way, St. John tells us in his Apocalypse, “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
Fr. Matt Boulter is an Episcopal priest in Tyler, Tx, a PhD student at Dallas University and also blogs at Religiocity where this short piece was first published.