Arise, shine: the Hidden Life of Nazareth

4 minute read

Preached S Mary’s, Bourne Street, on the Epiphany of the Lord, 2020

‘Arise, shine, for thy light is come.’ (Is. 60.1)

Are you, I wonder, fed up with Christmas yet?

Most of my time is spent working in a school, and the Christmas preparations last an absolute age. In late September, we had already begun the rehearsals for the carol service… By the time we got to the feast itself, I was quite exhausted.

And here we are on the Epiphany, twelve days into the Christmas season proper. We might easily think it all a bit much. And yet the celebration of Christmas would not mean a thing if we didn’t have the Epiphany.

A young woman was visited by an angel and had a miraculous baby. They were visited by shepherds, and by rich strangers from a foreign land. The baby was presented in the Temple. None of these events is particularly remarkable. They aren’t common, they aren’t frequent events, but none of them, in the context of the Biblical witness, is especially noteworthy.

The bare historical facts of our Lord’s birth are interesting and make for a beautiful and charming primary school nativity play, but they in themselves are not enough to change the world.

Today, the Epiphany, is the recognition that these events did change the world, because of the hidden truth that lies beneath them. Here the deep theological and spiritual significance of Christmas is fully seen. God’s own self entered the world. The creator became created. The invisible became visible. The immortal became mortal. God was seen. God breathed. God fell over and our Lady had to bandage a grazed knee.

Perhaps this seems all very obvious. It may seem like a repitition of a thousand Christmas sermons, including my own. But let’s not pass over it entirely. It would be easy to be so familiar with this central truth of our faith that we forget to marvel at it. Let us enjoy it. Let us revel in it.

‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.’

We must not cease to wonder at this mystery. God became manifest to us. But God did not become manifest in a moment of blazing, blinding light, as our Lord would to St Paul on the Damascus road.

And God did not become manifest merely in taking on our appearance. God became manifest in becoming one of us. The Epiphany is – indeed, it means – God’s manifestation to us and to the whole world. Not in a moment of blinding light, not in earthquakes and storms and fire, but in thirty-three years of life among us. What’s more, thirty of those years were hidden. They were no doubt made up of the humdrum, unexciting, frequently boring life of a small provincial town.

In that human life, in Jesus’ birth and life and family and friendships and laughter and sorrow, in his teaching and healing and suffering and death, God was manifested to the world. The whole world could see God in the face of Jesus Christ.

‘Arise, shine, for thy light is come.’

The prophet Isaiah spoke these words about the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Exile. They have become associated in the Christian understanding with our Lord, especially since the kings of Sheba, Isaiah says, would be coming with camels laden with gold and incense. But in Christ the light does not shine in an overwhelming, ostentatious way. It shines in a life, a human life, our human life.

In these next few weeks, we read a sequence of readings about dramatic moments when Jesus’ divinity and kingship are seen.

Today, of course, in the worship of the Magi. The Baptism in the Jordan. The Presentation in the Temple at Candlemas. Sadly, this year we won’t get the traditional reading of the wedding at Cana, but that too belongs to this time of year. In each of these, Christ’s divinity is seen and proclaimed.

Yet these are the exceptions. For the most part, Christ’s divinity is not proclaimed so obviously. For the most part, we have to see God’s manifestation to the world in an often mundane human life. It was in an ordinary human life that God was seen and made known. It is in the hidden life of Nazareth (the vita abscondita Nazarethana, in the words of Pope S. John Paul II), where our Lady watched our Lord as he grew, that God appears to us.

And because God was seen in a human life, because God’s light shone in Jesus Christ, because the mundane things of our existence were the place where God was revealed, our own lives can be as well.

‘Arise, shine, for thy light is come.’

These words can be addressed to our Lord. They are also addressed to us.

‘Arise, shine, for thy light is come.’

It is entirely unlikely that kings will come from the East with camels laden with gold and incense in tribute to you. Don’t rule it out. But it is unlikely.

It is unlikely that the dramatic events that proclaimed our Lord’s divinity will happen in your life.

And yet it is above all in the hidden life of Nazareth that God’s self is revealed.

The hidden life of Nazareth was the place of God’s manifestation.

Your life can be too.