Frances writes on this weekend’s readings :- Those of us who inhabit a world of artificial light often fail to recognise the significance of light in the ancient world, a world in which once the sun went down life became closed and the outside world was dangerous. They would in consequence dream of long term sources of light, even worship it and use it as their great metaphor for redemption, for salvation from enemies. Light represented what was good, God given, holy and a source of grace. When Third Isaiah wrote of the return of the exiles from Babylonia under the rule of the Persian Cyrus he saw this saving event in terms of light. (Isa 60: 1-6) Light is his watchword, his exuberant and flowery praise song for his restored city, Jerusalem, which he sees as the beacon, indeed the centre, of a renewed world that knows no bounds. Jerusalem is now the key from which all will flow, ‘throbbing and full’ she will be the great commercial hub of the East, and from her light every other part of the world will be illumined; “The glory of the Lord is rising on you, though night still covers the earth”. His joy knows no end. Banished is the cold, the dark and the oppressive rule of tyrants. This was what his nation had always looked for from God, and Isaiah reminds them that this time of blessing has come as the exiles returned home.
Our Gospel too takes up this great theme of light. (Matthew 2:1-12). When Matthew came to write his Gospel, sometime in the late 80’s AD, he had seen and lived through exceedingly dark times, with the crucifixion of Jesus, the failed Jewish insurrection with its appalling consequences for the nation, and the separation of the Christian sect from Judaism. His Gospel would catalogue this revolutionary movement as it went out to the pagan world. For Matthew the great tragedy would lie in his own nation’s rejection of Jesus, as they turned their backs on the long-awaited Messiah, and doomed the people to yet more generations of oppression and fear. Matthew therefore picks up on Isaiah’s use of light as the emblem of the coming Christ child, and speaks repeatedly in our Gospel of the ‘star’, the asteroid in Greek, that dazzling light which will streak through the heavens, no mere physical phenomenon but God’s message to his faithful followers announcing the one who would irrevocably alter human history.
Matthew will make a subtle and continuous play on this image of the light which comes to us from God, this source of revelation, the disclosure of God in the tiny infant, playing with it in the contrast between Jesus and Herod. Now anyone who knew anything about the rise to power and the reign of Herod the Great would have immediately associated him with the reign of darkness. Herod was a foreign king, planted upon Israel by Mark Antony, and held in power by the might of Rome. His reign was a catalogue of vicious oppression, from the slaughter of some three thousand Pharisees to the his murder of his wife, the last of the legitimate Hasmonean dynasty and her offspring. Herod was a Jew in name only, and though he famously built part of the temple, he also patronised pagan gods, being responsible for the construction of the temple to Zeus/Jupiter at Baalbek and the construction of the great fortress city and port at Caesarea. Matthew would quite deliberately go out of his way to paint this tyrant in the blackest of colours, a dark force, needing to be overcome by the light.
Our Jerusalem bible translation sadly looses the impact of this great clash between light and dark by sentimentalising the next part of the story where we are told that the prophet wrote of “A leader who will shepherd my people Israel”. In the Greek original the word is ‘govern’, literally to assume hegemony over the nation, and was thus clearly a deliberate threat to Herod and his offspring and their power. Moreover, Herod does not ask the magi the ‘exact date’ of the appearance of the star, he asks when the ‘kairos’ – God’s in-breaking into human life – would occur. In other words, Herod recognised exactly the degree of threat posed by this baby and all that he stood for. This is made even clearer by the actions of the magi who greet Jesus not, as our text says, by kneeling to him, but rather by the full prostration, the proskunesis performed to the Great King. Literally, they worshipped him as God, and they returned home by a different way, deliberately snubbing the monarch in whose territory they were staying. Herod is shown to be redundant, and though we shall have the massacre of innocents, a parallel to the tyrant Pharaoh in the time of Moses, he will also draw the link between Jesus and Moses. Moses, the one who redeemed his nation from slavery in Egypt and Jesus, the saviour of the world. Our gospel then is very far from a pretty crib scene. It is a determined piece of political propaganda in which Matthew unreservedly lays all his cards on the table, telling the world precisely who it has received in the birth of the infant Jesus.
It can be no surprise that this great motif of light and illumination, or Epiphany would be such a powerful theme in early Christian literature. St John in his later gospel and letters would develop the theme of Jesus as the ‘light’ and well before the gospels were written St Paul would develop it too. In his Letter to the Ephesians (3:2-3.5-6) he would say that it was ‘by a revelation that I was given the knowledge of the mystery’ of God’s self-gift to the world in Christ, and he will proclaim that this unfolding mystery is now not for the Jews alone, but intended for pagans too, and that this means that God intends us all to be one. As the Greek text has it: “joint heirs” – a joint body and joint sharers of the promise in Christ. Truly, we are the illumined ones, those to whom the Epiphany or showing forth of God as man is revealed.