Epiphany’s Creative Light

This monthly column will point out environmental dimensions in upcoming lectionary passages and suggest ways to bring God’s creation into our preaching — not just occasionally but throughout the year.

Day one of creation began with “Let there be light.” The New Year likewise begins with the brilliant light of Epiphany. Epiphanies are not gradual, but lightning-sudden streaks of insight. Just as scientists tell us that the first microseconds of the universe’s “Big Bang” remade all that was, epiphanies remake our vision of the whole.

Recognition of the human place within the greater world of creation is an epiphany reshaping everything: from previously anthropocentric theology to the ways we measure success, spend money, look out the window, eat food, and even breathe. Once lonely in a human world, we may now see with ecological awareness the multitudes of companions surrounding us, from the vast maple tree standing steadfast in the yard in every season, whose photosynthesis replenishes our air, to the tiny ladybugs that sometimes find us unexpectedly, offering a moment’s joy before continuing their journey.

In the light of such epiphanies, we see that what we once considered worthless is actually priceless. Like the merchant in Jesus’ parable, we find the one pearl that is worth selling all to gain — only it’s not a pearl, but the sapphire-blue jewel of the earth. Throughout this coming year, may we hold up this jewel for the gaze of all.

Because Easter falls quite early this year, the season of Epiphany is extremely short, twice as short as it sometimes is, and the semi-continuous readings from Paul’s epistles and from Luke hardly get off the ground before Lent begins. Some cross-text themes for each Sunday appear, however. As usual, the most ecologically promising passages are in the Psalms, and there are some magnificent ones here.

Epiphany itself falls on Sunday, January 6, offering light in each of the day’s four passages, a welcome light for new beginnings, much needed during the year’s shortest, coldest days:

  • Isaiah 60:1-6, with its “the glory of the LORD has risen upon you” and “nations shall come to your light,” hark back to the first day of creation, when with one command God made light shine in darkness.
  • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 sets prosperity during a gracious king’s reign within the larger sphere of ecological providence: “May he live while the sun endures … May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.”
  • Ephesians 3:1-12 attributes the mystery newly unveiled in Christ to the plan of the creator of all.
  • Matthew 2:1-12 tells of the star, reflecting creation’s own light, that guided the magi to the infant Christ.

The Baptism of the Lord follows on January 13, drawing attention to two powerful forces of creation — flood and fire — gifts beyond human control, sacramentalized in the church as the water of baptism and the Holy Spirit’s fire:

  • Isaiah 43:1-7 pledges that the redeeming God will transform flood and fire from threats of destruction into testing, cleansing agents of new life.
  • Psalm 29 reinforces both the power of flood and fire and their subjection to the divine voice, which thunders over the waters.
  • Acts 8:14-17 moves the boundaries of water and fire beyond the Jewish community into Samaria.
  • Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 describes John’s water baptism and announcement that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Themes of the third and fourth Sundays in January are subtler. The texts for January 20 congregate around the gracious gifts from God that reflect the world’s diversity and relationality:

  • Isaiah 62:1-5 announces God’s reunion with Jerusalem, whose vindication shines like the dawn.
  • Psalm 36:5-10 shouts that God’s steadfast love extends to the heavens, that God saves humans and animals alike.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 lists the diversity of human talents, reflecting the teeming diversity of creation.
  • John 2:1-11 recounts the egregious gift of water turned into wine to celebrate a human marriage.

On January 27, the reading of 1 Corinthians continues, and a semi-continuous reading of Luke begins. Here we may trace the theme of God’s message transmitted. Three of the passages concern Scripture itself, but Psalm 19 clarifies that creation likewise communicates God’s ways:

  • Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 relates Ezra’s reading of the Torah before the Water Gate.
  • Psalm 19, “the heavens are telling the glory of God,” parallels the wordless “natural theology” message of creation to the sweetness of the written Torah.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:12s-31a uses the image of the body and its parts to remind readers that there is no incidental member — a message as applicable to the web of all creation as it is to human society. If one part suffers, all suffer.
  • Luke 4:14-21 relates Jesus’ own interpretation of his ministry as one of healing for those most forgotten.