In our home we celebrate Epiphany after dinner on January 6. First, we turn off every light in our apartment. Then we recite the words from John 1, “What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.” Then we light a candle and go room-to-room inviting the light of Christ to fill every space in our apartment. We chalk our door with a blessing. We sprinkle holy water everywhere. And we sing “Joy to the World” as enthusiastically as the four of us can manage.
I love Epiphany. Epiphany is that season where “O Come Let Us Adore Him” becomes “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” In Advent we spin inward in an effort to make room for Jesus’ coming. At Christmas we celebrate the beautiful and scandalous birth of Jesus. And in Epiphany we are sent out with the light of the beauty of the glory of Jesus shining in our faces to announce the good news. The darkness is past. A new day has come. The light has shined in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Light is the preeminent symbol of Epiphany. There’s an irony here. We speak of and celebrate light as a church in the heart of the season when our hemisphere seems wrapped in darkness. I know, and so do you, people who sit in front of full-spectrum lights this time of year to help regulate their body because of the diminished light. Many of us are up before dawn and return home after dusk. We celebrate light in the middle of the darkness.
Moving from the physical to the symbolic, the irony deepens. A difficult relationship darkens our days. A lost loved one causes our hearts to droop. A difficult project drains confidence. Socially things look dark. This week, two more police were shot in the Bronx. This week we saw violence in Paris, Colorado, and Nigeria. Hosea’s words stand out:
There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.
We sit in the dark. The shadow whispers its formless menace. And somebody lights a candle.
Epiphany is not for the faint of heart. It is not a season for idealists who believe that things are basically good and getting better but who then collapse in cynicism when confronted with reality. Epiphany beckons us to come to the light of Jesus Christ. Epiphany calls us to stare into that light until our inner darkness is fully expunged. Epiphany sends us out into a dark and weary world as women and men with shining faces, until we say with the apostle Paul: “It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
The most literal illustration I can think of for this comes from the sixth film in the Harry Potter series. Toward the end of the film there is a tragic death that has been orchestrated by evil. The mission to fight the darkness ends in futility. And hovering above the iconic fallen hero is the dark mark, an apparition in the clouds in the shape of a skull with a serpent protruding from its jaws. The mark is a symbol of intimidation. It taunts those who might resist with the indomitable power of evil.
In this scene, as the students of Hogwarts gather in shock and horror, Professor McGonagall silently lifts her wand. The end glows, like a candle, with a white light. Silently the others begin to do the same. More and more wands are held high in the air. White lights like candles mark the scene. The light reflects against the dark mark, and in a way that is both mysterious and beautiful, the dark mark dissolves from within.
This is not a sentimental moment in the movie. It is a moment of defiance. Holding up a light in a dark place is a dangerous thing to do. Maybe that’s why we find it so hard.
John 3:19 says, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” Holding up a candle risks exposure. Holding up a candle risks confrontation with the powers that thrive in the dark.
God’s call to us is to hold up a candle, to add “Go Tell It on the Mountain” to “O Come Let Us Adore Him.”
Every time the church emphasizes one of these to the exclusion of the other she gets distorted. When the church emphasizes “Go and Tell” over “Come Adore” she becomes hollow. Witness and justice activity dissolve into guilt and legalism. But we in the church can just as easily sing “O Come Let Us Adore Him” while ignoring the world and people God loves. We need both.
Witness is powerless without adoration and adoration is anemic without witness. Do we know how to stare into the light of Jesus until our hearts burn within us? Or is our worship merely sincere and authentic? Do we go out in joy to the places we live, work, and play with faces that radiate the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ? To quote Paul again, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
Will you hold up a candle during this season of Epiphany?
Here are a few really practical ways to hold up the light of Christ in these weeks before Lent.
How are you radiating the light of Christ in your life as an individual? What practices warm your heart to the reality of Jesus’ presence with you? How much time every day are you setting aside to sit in the presence of Jesus without any plans other than to know his love for you?
C. Peter Wagner did a study of pastors in a Doctor of Ministry program. He discovered that one in four of the surveyed clergy—women and men whose vocation is tied to the church—pray for less than 10 minutes a day. Almost 60 percent of pastors pray for less than 20 minutes a day.
How’s that going for you? Do you long for more?
How much time are you actually spending consciously aware of the presence of God, and allowing his light to fill you? Keep track this week.
We can’t give away what we don’t have. A life of intimacy with God is impossible without spending time with God. Here’s the point! For our face to shine with the light of Christ, we must spend time beholding his glory. (It should perhaps go without saying that to gaze on the face of Jesus is to turn our gaze away from ourselves. This is medicine we sorely need in a narcissistic age.)
The best way that I know to sit in the presence of God is to do what Christians have done throughout the centuries, the simple practice of holy reading. In holy reading you work your way through a section of Scripture slowly, attentively, asking simply, “How does this passage point me to Jesus?”
So this week pay attention to your time with God. Perhaps consider holy reading.
It has always been the norm for Christian witness to take place in community. Our faces shine with the light of Christ together. We reflect the beauty and glory of Jesus best when we are connected to others in community.
How is that going for you? Are you part of a small group or missional community? Is there space at your table for someone from a different generation, marital status, or educational background?
When we are looking into the face of Jesus together with others, it becomes natural to connect the people we live with, work with, and play with to our worshiping community, that they might experience that life as well.
This week ask yourself, “Who am I connected with in mission?” And also ask, “Who are the people I live, work, and play with, who need life with God?”
If you’re not connected to neighbors, coworkers, or others who need life with God, how might God be inviting you to get connected?
What makes a church great? It’s not the people or ministry programs. It’s not the community or worship arts. What makes a great church is the beauty and holiness of Jesus. We do not preach ourselves. We preach Christ, crucified and raised from the dead. We preach repentance and forgiveness of sin. We preach life in the gospel. We are witnesses in word, deed, and power to the holy light of Christ. We hold up our candle. Our faces shine.
I love Epiphany. I love Epiphany because I love Jesus. The beauty and majesty of the glory of God is reflected in his scandalous and holy life. And I am convinced that the only hope for our dark, dark world is the light of Jesus.
How do I hold up my candle? I do it through words. I do it by my willingness to dare you to stare into the beauty of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection until you are undone. I hold up a candle by beating the drum of witness and sounding the call to go into the places where you live, work, and play with a face shining and a candle burning bright.
Will you join me?
Jason Gaboury serves as regional director for InterVarsity’s undergraduate ministry in New York and New Jersey. He has worked for InterVarsity for 17 years and contributed to two InterVarsity Press books, Drama Team Handbook and Drama Team Sketchbook. He and his wife, Sophia, have two children and live in New York City.