Be a Light (in a dark place)…a sermon during the Season of Epiphany

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When [the Three Kings] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.  Matthew 2:11-12

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  John 1:5

Some fifty-two hundred years ago, before Stonehenge, before the great pyramids and before the birth of Christ, stone age farmers just north of what is now Dublin, conceived and constructed a large stone mound called Newgrange.   Two-hundred feet in diameter but just under fifty feet high, Newgrange consists of a solitary opening connected to a long passageway that leads into the interior of the mound.  At its center is a cavern made up of three alcoves.  What makes this structure especially remarkable is that the long passageway and its interior chamber are aligned to the rising of the sun each year during the Winter Solstice.

For at dawn, and on December 21st, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box of Newgrange and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear.
As the sun rises higher, the beam extends and widens, reaching its interior cruciform chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated.

Each year scores of people gather in the darkness…and wait.

The activist theologian Bill Wylie-Kellerman was quoted by Sojourner’s, noting, [The Epiphany season] ‘beings and ends in light.   From the heavenly star to the radiant robes of transfiguration, Epiphany is about revelation, [a]…sudden brightness that lights up the landscape of a mind or a community or a whole social order.    The light reveals, but not passively; it summons and it sends.” [1]

Epiphany reminds us that we are summoned and sent to Be a Light (…in a dark place). [2]

Just last Tuesday and while offering a Bible study about the Christmas Season at the retirement community where I work, a resident asked, “If December 25 is over, just why are you continuing to talk about Christmas?”

But provided (as one author notes) that your eggnog hasn’t soured or that you haven’t stashed the creche until next December [3], there is a reason why the lectionary lingers on the Christmas Season and Epiphany.  Because the arrival of the Christ child is anything but sentimental…as much as we’re tempted to make it so.

Scripture recalls the visitation of Three Kings from the east, who seeing that the star’s radiance remained over Bethlehem, entered the house where Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Joseph were with the infant Jesus.   Despite that the newborn king was not surrounded by a royal entourage but lay in a feeding trough, the Magi were overcome with joy and adulation.  Kneeling down, these distant travelers paid him homage.  Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream NOT to return to Herod, they left for their country by another road.

But there is a problem – both as identified by scripture, and as experienced in the world, Jesus was born into.   It is not coincidental that the journey of the Magi to see the newborn king begins and ends with Herod.    The subsequent passage that speaks of the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt following the Magi’s visit – because an enraged Herod sought to destroy the Light of the World by ordering the massacre of children and infants in the vicinity where Christ was born is not coincidental either.   Any more than it is coincidental that the gifts to the infant Jesus, foreshadowed his death.

Scripture points to this problem unequivocally, for darkness continues to cast its shadow.

Indeed, Herod and his kind have plundered humankind and all of creation for that matter, for thousands of years.

The birth of the Christ child and thus, the incarnation challenges our assumption – that the physical and the spiritual are irreconcilable.   Christ’s birth challenges the dualism and disconnect between matter and spirit, the secular and the religious, the practical, and the temporal.   It took a vulnerable infant born to impoverished Palestinian refugees who later crossed a border to flee from violence – to confront the lengths we go to – to keep the incarnation only about Jesus – so that we can get on with business as usual.

But what if each of us, as suggested by Augustine, Meister Eckhart, and others, were created to make real the incarnation, this synthesis between matter and spirit?   What if each of us like Mary are summoned and sent to give birth to the Son of God in our own persons and time and culture, to reconcile our spiritual sides with the work and action so desperately needed in the world?

In other words, to Be a Light (in a dark place).

Serene Jones, seminary president, theologian, and author observed how, for years, the conversion of the slave trader, John Newton, writer of the Song Amazing Grace, was often spoken of at the church she attended [4].  She had been told growing up, that after nearly losing his life at sea, John Newton became a Christian and completely turned his life around: returning to Africa to set the slaves on his ship free and becoming a fervent abolitionist from that time forward.

But the real story is quite different.  For though John Newton felt grateful to God that he had survived when others had perished in the storm, he did not immediately turn his ship around and free the slaves incarcerated on board.   If anything, though he became a personally pious Christian, he continued to trade and ship enslaved Africans for years – contributing his growing success to a state of blessedness.  It wasn’t until Newton reckoned the disconnect between his personal piety as being at complete odds with the human trafficking business he was engaged in that Newton realized aligned his professed beliefs with action.   It was then that he finally wrote the song, Amazing Grace, and became the abolitionist he is known for.

He finally chose to Be a Light (in a dark place).

I confess it is difficult to align one’s personal commitment – the matter of the heart – with what we do in the world.    It is and continues to be a lifelong struggle for me.    I suspect that many others struggle with this too.  But this is where God’s grace comes in.   To be an incarnate one of God, to continue to birth Christ in ourselves in this time and place is a high calling.   But I believe it is the only one worth giving our lives for.

Epiphany points to the incarnation, God made flesh in Jesus.   But as the incarnation means the synthesis of physical matter and the spiritual, then the nativity isn’t only about Mary giving birth to Jesus.

The birth of the Christ child didn’t begin and end on Christmas morning.  Christ came so that God would be born within us and reconcile the dualism that has long separated matter from spirit.  Christ came so that we as God bearers can “Be A Light (in a dark place), champions and advocates for ALL of humanity and God’s good creation.

For our desperate world hungers for light.   Remarkably, though Newgrange is 5,200 years old, the acquisition and reliance upon the sun’s energy have continued to illuminate not only the passageway and chamber but people’s lives, who come for miles if not across the world.   It is extraordinary to wait in darkness, as people did so long ago, for the longest night of the year to end. 

Poet Laureate Maren Tirabassi’s recently made a decision to leave Christmas candles in her window in the months ahead, despite taking down the tree and other decorations. [5] Knowing of how challenging it can be to synthesize matters of the heart with our work in the world, the candles are testimony to a grace-filled decision to be an incarnate one of God in a time of great trepidation…

…to be a light in a dark place.

[1] Jim Rice, Epiphany: A Light To The World, (Sojourners, Jan. 2012)

[2] John Pavlovitz, PavlovitzDesign

[3] Mary Luti, Merry Christmas (Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, Jan. 4, 2020)

[4] Serene Jones, Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World (Penguin House, 2019), 126-27.

[5] Maren Tirabassi, The candles in my windows (Gifts in Open Hands, Jan. 4, 2020)

[6] Photo Image from the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) website of Greater Mercer County,

 

 

Author: Jessica McArdle

These are dark and corrosive times. As a writer and ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, I use prayer, poetry, reflection, and scripture to re-align our embattled spirits with the uniqueness and urgency of our God-given identity and call.

2 thoughts on “Be a Light (in a dark place)…a sermon during the Season of Epiphany”

  1. I read your sermon during my morning prayer time. I agree with your son-in-law! It is excellent and so meaningful. And the best is that you are a living example of what you preached. With prayers and love, Susan Sent from my iPhone

    Like

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