INTRODUCTION TO THE OLD TESTAMENT READINGS IN EPIPHANY
The Old Testament readings in Epiphany Year A continue our encounter with Isaiah with five of the eight readings from that book. The name of the liturgical season, Epiphany, is taken from the Greek verb epiphaino, meaning ‘appear’, ‘give light’, or in the passive voice ‘to appear’ or ‘to be revealed’. The Old Testament passages in this season pick up a number of themes suggested by the Greek verb.
The theme of light appears in a number of the passages. Both Isaiah 42:1-9 (Epiphany 1 or Baptism of Jesus) and Isaiah 49 (Epiphany 2) speak of the servant of the Lord becoming a ‘light to the nations’ (42:6; 49:6) in order that God’s salvation may reach even them. Isaiah 9:1-4 (Epiphany 3), which was also part of the first alternate reading for Christmas Day, is introduced by a statement that there will no longer be gloom for those who were in anguish. The people who once walked in darkness ‘have seen a great light’ and ‘on them has light shined.’ (Isa 9:2) The prophet points us to a reality that transcends all that is dark about us to a light that shines even in the land of deep darkness. In Isaiah 58 (Epiphany 5) we hear again of light and healing (vv. 8, 10) and of the Lord’s revelation to the people (v. 9). If there are enough Sundays in Epiphany we return to Isaiah 49 in Epiphany 8, this time reading vv. 8-16a, providing a neat inclusion to the season (see Epiphany 2) and with further allusion to light in the calling of those who are in darkness to show themselves, a metaphor for salvation and liberation. Even if we do not read Isaiah 49 again, the season finishes with the Feast of the Transfiguration with the glorious appearance of Jesus to three of his disciples in the company of Moses and Elijah. The Old Testament reading for Transfiguration is Exodus 24 where the Lord’s glory is likened not only to cloud, but also to a devouring fire, a fearful sign yet signifying light. The paradox in this reading, however, is that the source of the light is shrouded in cloud. The presence of God revealed in all its glory is ultimately obscured. The presence is hidden in its very manifestation. The fullness of the light is dimmed in its appearance.
A second theme that emerges in the Old Testament readings in Epiphany is that of ‘newness’ or the light revealed in ways unexpected. This comes through in several passages. The introduction of the ‘servant of the Lord’, the one who will be a light to the nations, is a case in point. The servant does not represent a powerful one establishing justice and the rule of God. Rather he is described as one who establishes justice through compassion and suffering (Isaiah 42:2-3; 49:4). This is not quite the type of messiah described in Isaiah 9:2-7. How these passages are to be reconciled only becomes apparent in the fullness of the servant’s story and how that is related to Jesus. In this sense the Old Testament readings of early Epiphany foreshadow the story developed in Lent and especially in Holy Week. In all this, new ways of thinking about God are required. This is still a God who is ruler of the cosmos as stressed in Isaiah 42.
Related to this sense of ‘newness’, new forms of piety or faithfulness, or of discipleship in Christian terms, are explored in the later Epiphany readings. This is a third theme in the Epiphany readings. Isaiah 58:1-9a (Epiphany 5) speaks about a new form of fasting, namely ‘loosing the bonds of injustice’, ‘letting the oppressed go free', ‘sharing bread with the hungry', 'humbling oneself’ etc. The reading from Micah 6 (Epiphany 4) concerns a redefining of sacrifice as doing justice, loving loyalty and walking humbly with God (v. 8). Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (Epiphany 6) puts the emphasis on life – of choosing life over death in a new covenant context. Finally, Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 (Epiphany 7) stresses that holiness is evident in the Holiness Code not in well-defined pious acts but in the very principles that govern daily activity.
The Epiphany Old Testament readings not only link us back to Advent and Christmas through the Isaiah connection and the rereading of one of the Christmas Day readings, but point us to the future. They foreshadow the story of the servant of the Lord, to be read in full in Holy Week, and begin to explore the nature of discipleship in this new revelation. The latter will be the theme of the post-Pentecost readings.
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