The feast of the Epiphany of the Lord originated in the Eastern Orthodox Church, with one of the earliest references from Clement of Alexandria, who died around 215. It was celebrated in many different ways, focusing on many different aspects of Christ’s glory and Divinity, including the Nativity, the visit of the Magi, the Baptism, and the miracle at Cana. One of the most interesting is from the Syrian church, who referred to it as “denho”, meaning “up-going”, a name that was clearly connected with the notion of the “dawn from heaven breaking upon us” in Luke 1:78. It also reflects clearly the passage for today from Isaiah 60:1-6.
Consider just verse 1. “Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the Lord’s glory has shone upon you.” Notice here, though, that the focus is less on the rising of the light of Christ and more the rising of the light of Christ as reflected through Christ’s followers. It hearkens to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:14, that “you are the light of the world.” This is demonstrated here as we recall that earlier in chapter 58 Isaiah had said that “if you open your heart to the hungry, and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted, your light will shine in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noon.” God is fulfilling God’s promise through the faithful. And, like all prophecy, this one from Isaiah is not just a promise for what is yet to come even in our age but a declaration for the persons living at the time it was spoken.
Verse 2 continues, speaking to an issue very near to the original hearers’ hearts: “Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you.” Surrounding nations may continue to struggle, Isaiah says, but the faithful ones, in this case Jerusalem in particular, will see God’s glory. At the time Isaiah was prophesying King Artaxerxes was flexing his power. Some in the region were opposing him, and therefore opened themselves up to his anger and reprisal. Others were supporting an Egyptian revolt. Still others were involved in a rebellion led by the Persian satrap Megabyzus. Darkness and gloom no doubt were the consequence for such resistance! But no such shadow fell on Jerusalem, because of their continued faithfulness to the King of kings as opposed to any earthy realm or ruler.
“Nations will come to your light,” verse 3 says, “and kings to your dawning radiance.” Jerusalem’s faithfulness would be a beacon to others. Persons and rulers from surrounding areas would travel to Jerusalem to experience her light, her dawn, to be present when she received her blessings.
This is further echoed in verse 4. “Lift up your eyes and look all around: they are all gathered; they have come to you. Your sons will come from far away, and your daughters on caregivers’ hips.” Notice what God is doing, Isaiah says. Kinsmen who have been scattered will return. The fact that they do so “on caregivers’ hips” reinforces that these Jews are returning as Zion’s children. God will not leave God’s people scattered and alone.
Verses 5 and 6 complete this passage. “Then you will see and be radiant; your heart will tremble and open wide, because the sea’s abundance will be turned over to you; the nations’ wealth will come to you. Countless camels will cover your land, young camels from Midian and Ephah. They will all come from Sheba, carrying gold and incense, proclaiming the Lord’s praises.” At this Jerusalem can rejoice, for her former poverty has been changed through gifts from Arabia and Phoenicia. These locales are important, for Arabia was immediately to the south and west of Judah, controlling major land trade routes. Phoenicia held the ports of Tyre and Sidon, with access to the commercial wealth from the entire eastern Mediterranean. God brought all together to provide.
In reflecting on this passage, John Wesley saw the language of “countless camels” in verses like 6 and others throughout Isaiah 60 implying the coming of all nations to Christ, bowing before Him as King just as the original Magi had done. And just as nations would do in tribute to a King, they were bringing and presenting the chief commodities of their respective countries, their camels, their gold, their incense.
As we consider the Light of Christ at Epiphany and the coming of the King, what gifts do we bring? What promises have we realized? What hopes do we not only look to for ourselves but proclaim to the world? Let us arise, and shine our light, that others may see the good we do and give praise to the One who is the Light of the World.