Blinded by Epiphany Light?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, January 6, 2022

Blinded by Epiphany Light?

 Where were you one year ago, on January 6, 2021? How did you learn about what was happening at the U.S. Capitol as it was overtaken by fellow-citizens seeking to prevent Congress from certifying the country’s election of Joe Biden as President? It felt surreal to watch a mob of Americans forcibly enter and trash the hallowed halls of our federal government, driving legislators to flee into safe hiding to avoid losing their lives.

Not since September 11, 2001, has a day been so seared into our collective memory. A few other dates are similarly etched forever in my own consciousness – I know in detail exactly where I was and what I was doing when I witnessed the explosion of space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, and when I heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated on November 22, 1963. Others of us can say the same for the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942, or Dr. Martin Luther King’s murder on April 4, 1968. In each case, the common denominator was catastrophic disaster of human cause.

A year ago, a few Christian commentators noted the startling juxtaposition of the Capitol insurrection and Epiphany on January 6. How do those events and their aftermath inform our understanding and observance of Epiphany one year later?

First, it is notable how quickly the account of the Capitol break-in last year has changed for some, from a terror-suffused lawless mob riot to a story of legitimate and appropriate protest. Just one year later, the story as told on one TV network is unrecognizable and irreconcilable vis-à-vis that playing on another channel. It is a classic instance of our stories being shaped more by what we want to believe than by what really took place. And that happens also with how we tell the story of Jesus.

What the Magi saw as heaven’s incursion into this world, Herod took as an existential threat so great that he ordered the mass slaughter of innocent babies. What the Magi saw and what Herod saw said more about them than about what they beheld. The same is true for us today – how we respond to the story of Jesus says more about us than it does about him.

The Gospel of John depicts the coming of Jesus as an epiphany, which means literally “shining upon.” “…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) Jesus later pointed out that his light, meant to illuminate and reveal, becomes a source of blindness to those who do not want to face up to what it reveals. (John 9:39-41)

A second instructive comparison of Epiphany to the events of January 6, 2021, is that one story is all about giving, while the other is all about seizing. The coming of Jesus reveals that God has given us all the light we need to be able to fulfill that for which we are created. Fittingly, the Magi respond to the gift of heaven’s light with magnificent gifts of their own. That’s how it should be with any who know themselves to have received great gifts – they in turn want to give all they can in response.

January 6 was fueled by a frenzy of seizure, even to the point of violence. In this it demonstrated the spirit of Herod, rather than of the Magi. Seizing an election was the big goal. In pursuing the big goal, smaller seizures were considered acceptable, perhaps even necessary – seizure and destruction of property, of security barriers and the personnel who guarded them, and even lawmakers if possible.

A recent University of Maryland/Washington Post poll reveals that 19% of Americans today consider the actions of the January 6 insurgents to have been largely peaceful. How anyone who was watching TV on January 6, 2021, or who has subsequently seen videos from that horrific day, can believe that was a peaceful gathering seems incomprehensible. Yet do we not do something similar in rewriting the story of Jesus coming to upend our broken world? How have we domesticated it into a story we like better?

Epiphany is about God’s light blazing into our world. We can choose either to live by what it reveals, or to be blinded by it in our eagerness to live instead according to what we would prefer to be true. No matter our view on what happened January 6, 2021, we all face this choice, and some searching questions it inevitably raises:

Who is Jesus, really?

Who are we, honestly?

What does the Light of the world have to do with how we live today?

Yours in his light,

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