Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Epiphany

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Isaiah 60:1-3


In April of 1980 I traveled to Caracas, Venezuela, where I lived and worked for two years. The first impression I had of this expansive and teeming Venezuelan capital city, as we cut our way through the darkness en route from the airport to the city, were all the lights! Thousands upon thousands of little bright dots completely engulfed both sides of the large mountains, which surrounded the highway and continued down to surround the city. What were these lights that flickered so gently on the hillsides, but were so overwhelming in quantity, I wondered? Then, suddenly we entered into a tunnel and we emerged right into the center of the city. Now bright neon lights and flashing billboards replaced those little flickering lights. These lights now had a message – they were signs for General Electric, Bayer, Pan-Am, Minolta, Ford and so on. They pretty much obliterated the little lights, which had been so numerous before, and soon I had forgotten all about them. But later that night, as I lay in bed trying to make sense of the day I wondered about those thousands of little lights that I had seen flickering in the darkness before we had entered the city. What were they?

I had not long to wait for an answer. For the next morning I saw for the first time that in the place where the millions of lights had dotted the mountainside the night before, there now stood the barrios; little shacks, made of corrugated aluminum which made up the slums of Caracas. There were literally thousands upon thousands of them surrounding the city. These barrios, I later learned, were “home” for the majority of Caracas’ four million inhabitants and they were everywhere. Whatever street I drove down, whatever window I looked out of, whatever neighborhood I lived in, whatever town I visited in the interior, there they were - the barrios. From Los Palos Grandes to the Andean Mérida; from El Silencio in the center of the capital to the Caribbean island Marguarita; from the upscale apartments in Bello Monte to Ciudad Guyana on the edge of the jungle, the flickering lights of the poor could always be seen burning through the darkness.

My last morning in Caracas came on the day after Christmas, December 26,
1982. I arose early that morning in order to catch a 7:30AM flight to New York. It was a hectic morning to say the least. The taxi had forgotten to come and I was very anxious about the day. But finally the taxi came, and as I settled into the cab and drove out of this city, which had been my home for the last two years, I turned and looked back at the city for one last time. Dawn was just beginning to break and the sky was awash with a beautiful pinkish glow. Against the horizon the shadows of the barrios were now barely visible; but they still had their lights on! The neon signs and flashing billboards had been turned off at the first crack of daylight, but the little lights of the poor shone on into the dawn heightening its illumination!

For me the memory of this image has always been an experience of Epiphany. Isaiah says that when the LORD arises there will be no need of a sun or moon because God will shine brighter than both. And in this brightness we will see God. Ultimately Epiphany is about seeing. Living in a world of darkness we see what we want. We see what props up our own view of the world or our own experiences of God and we ignore or do not see those things or people that would challenge our world views. We don’t see the poor, we don’t see those who in need, we don’t see the environmental damage we are causing, we don’t see the hurt and pain of those who we exclude from this or that. We see what we want. But the promise of Epiphany is that because of the light of God all will be illuminated and we will see! We will see clearly!

Epiphany! Hope! Emmanuel ! Christ with us - all of us! For it is in the midst of the darkness that we encounter our Crucified God! It is in the darkness where the light of Christ illuminates the faces of the hungry, the homeless, the abandoned - and it is
from out of this darkness that Christ brings the dawn. Even on a lonely morning on a vacant highway in what felt like one of the most abandoned places in the world, the sweet gentle stillness of that lonely Venezuelan morning was, for me, pregnant with the presence of God. Happy Epiphany!


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