On a cloudy New Year’s Day, I was driving west at sunset, when I saw a little wisp of orange sky linger over some low-lying hills. Rather bored by the drive and pensive about the New Year, I acknowledged the few seconds of light with a slight nod to hope and beauty. “How nice,” I said to myself, and then fell back into my own distant thoughts. Soon, however, after rushing by a few more hills and fields, I had to gasp in amazement. How had the little wisp of orange suddenly spread over the entire horizon, lighting up clouds and sky as far as the eye could see? With a constantly changing quality of light, this was a sunset that went on and on for miles, deepening from orange to red, glistening like mother-of-pearl, causing drivers to pull over to the side of the road to gape in awe. The bare arms of branches seemed to reach up into the iridescent sky, attempting to hold down the cover of light with their crooked, black fingers, as if to prevent it from ever slipping away. I, too, wondered how long the shadows of earth could stand to be covered in this splendid light, as time itself seemed to stop in the presence of such beauty.
Bathed in gold more glorious than the most precious metals and covered in reds deeper than the finest rubies, I couldn’t help but feel as if I were looking into the face of God. I thought about Moses, begging to see the fiery, radiant splendor of God’s Glory, that wondrous light that both attracts and repels at the same time, that dangerous power that cloaks God’s incomprehensibility and goes before the Lord, dreadfully and majestically, out into the world. I didn’t think about Isaiah’s poetry, but I should have: “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.” So speaks God, through the Prophet Isaiah, to the desolate, broken city of Jerusalem. It is a city whose walls have been destroyed, whose Temple has been laid waste, whose leaders have been exiled, yet Isaiah calls to the city to see itself as it will look when the light of new life shines upon it. In Isaiah’s poetry, I can picture my Western Kentucky sunset transplanted to Jerusalem, with golden light shining over the brown Judean hills and waves of pink clouds embracing the ancient stones. Even a broken and battered world could shine with God’s healing presence when covered in such a light.
I can imagine God’s epiphany, the shining forth of God’s presence into the world, bathing my own battered soul in light like that sunset over Jerusalem, promising new life, abundance, honor, and glory. That, however, is not quite the kind of divine epiphany that we hear about in Matthew. God’s glory, in our Christian story, appears not over the great city of Jerusalem, but over the tiny village of Bethlehem. In our story, the light that God shines down on the earth does not fill the horizon with jewel-toned fire. It is instead found in the cold beam of a distant star, lost in a sea of darkness and shining down on a newborn baby in a stable. Like Elijah, who searches for God in the mighty wind and in the terrible fire but finds God in whispering silence, the wise men follow a God who flickers in the silent blackness of the desert at night. Instead of being surrounded by the Glory of God’s Face, the wise men, like Moses, must make due with following God’s back.
Sunsets, after all, are gifts for the close of day. They reside in memory, carrying us over until the next sunrise. The incarnate God is not a sunset. The incarnate God resides with us in the world's darkness, not merely in our memory of the light. The Light of Christ, however glorious in itself, spreads through this world like the flames of our Christmas Eve candles during “Silent Night” and brings us to Resurrection as quietly as the Paschal fire that leads us into the darkened Church on Easter Eve. Indeed, as night fell over the Western Kentucky Parkway, and the glorious light faded into velvet blackness, I would have traded all the heart-warming gold for a tiny little star to lead me on my way through the cold, dark night.