How do we respond to light: in love or fear?
By Andy Wurm. Epiphany 3rd Jan 2021
The story of Epiphany tells us something about ourselves, and so does the story about the story. By that I mean what happened to the story of Epiphany, which is that a group of wise men got changed into three kings. Our psalm to day (72) is the connection. At some time, a parallel was seen between the wise men bearing gifts and the three kings of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba which were mentioned in the psalm. At Epiphany, the Light of Christ is revealed to the whole world, so it seems logical to apply it to the idea of the kings of the world acknowledging Christ. We’d like that to be the case anyway. If the kings of the world acknowledged Christ, the world would be a better place, but of course, that’s wishful thinking.
The reality is that the wise men were not kings. They were not men with power and the sort of certainty and security that comes with power. The wise men were from the east, probably from Persia, which is today called Iran, or from Iraq or Afghanistan. And they were likely to have been priests of Zoroastrianism, a religion which worshipped the god Mazda, the god of light. They believed that the births of famous people were always accompanied by bright lights in the sky. They must have had a few false positives when lighthouses were invented! Anyway, these wise men traveled a long way from their home, following their vision of finding someone famous, and driven by their belief that they would find him.
Incidentally, if you think this might just be a story made up by the gospel writers, it makes no difference to point of the story, which is what really matters.
When the wise men found Jesus, their attitude to the Christ child was so different to that of Herod, the Jewish king. The people whose only connection with the Christ child was their belief about light were full of joy when they found him, whereas Herod, representative of the Jews, was full of fear. He should have been the one to have been joyful, for his society had produced someone who would bring so much. These two responses of joy and fear were seen through all of Jesus’ life, and are still the two main ways in which we might respond to his light.
Jesus was aware of the choice that people made in their response to his light, as were the gospel writers. In the gospels it is not so much joy and fear that is contrasted, but faith and fear. And fear doesn’t just mean anxiety, but means being threatened. The story of Jesus walking on water is an example, hence Jesus asks his disciples (who should be people of faith) “why are you so afraid?”.
The wise men who travelled to see Jesus were people of faith. Travelling from far away, they had to endure danger on the way and when meeting Herod, who would probably have killed them if they had returned to him after seeing Jesus. The experience of these wise men was very different to that of the shepherds. The shepherds were just out in the fields minding their flocks, when angels came and told them that Jesus had been born, and how to find their way to the manger. They had an easy time. No difficult journey, no danger, and best of all, certainty. And they knew exactly what it was that they would find.
If only we could find light, or life, like that. But that’s not our experience. Our experience is usually more like the wise men. No certainty, not exactly sure where what we are looking for is to be found, or exactly what it will look like, if we find it. We face danger too. King Herod wanted to destroy the lives of little children, so too, on our journey through life, our inner child, and the children around us, face the danger of being caught up and then run by fear of not being approved of, fear of not having enough, fear of not being enough, fear of living in a world we don’t control.
Yet we also have our stars, we also perceive lights, which we believe will lead us to something we need. We are made to want what is life-giving and it doesn’t always get suffocated by the world, or smothered by ourselves. Sometimes the light we feel drawn to involves the opportunity to make the world a better place, or perhaps the opportunity to make our inner world a better place. Do we respond like the wise men in joy, or like Herod, in fear? Sometimes we might be the light, or the light might be life we have.
Men, women and children have come to our country from the east, sometimes from the same place as in our story. We could consider them wise in the sense that their wisdom is their hope for a better life, for themselves and those they love. They come for one reason only: because they believe that whatever is here, is better than where they came from. That’s their light.
Like the wise men in our story, their journey was perilous, fraught with danger and uncertainty. It was risky, but better than staying where they were, they set out following their star, their hope for life, with a belief, a faith, that for some reason, things would work out better by doing so.
I wonder whether we have as much faith as they do? Are we as willing as they were to follow our light, to act in accord with what we believe? Or do we choose fear? Do we choose to hold on to what we have, like Herod, to protect the status quo, whether it be things in ourselves, or our society, that could be better?
Are we people of joy or fear? People of faith or fear? The only path to the light of this world is the path of the wise men. Not the path of fear, but the path of joy, the path of faith.
To finish off, I will read a poem by Michael Leunig, who writes about this, but instead of joy or faith, he calls it love.
There are only two feelings: love and fear.
There are only two languages: love and fear.
There are only two activities: love and fear.
There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results: love and fear.
What do we choose: love or fear? What do you choose: love of fear?