Monday, January 24, 2011

The Light of Epiphany

The Light of Epiphany
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Paul’s Free Methodist Church
January 23, 2011

After our return from Alaska, I have decided never to take for granted the beauty of the light of day. After trying to adjust to days with less than four hours of seeming twilight surrounded by long periods of darkness, the sheer thrill of a sunshiny winter’s morning at anything warmer than twenty-below-zero has become grand enough to send my heart racing. We 21st-century folk often forget that it is only recently that people have acquired the ability to illuminate their lives by anything beyond a candle light or two. It was only a little over a hundred years ago, for instance, that the electric light displays at the World’s Fairs in Chicago and Buffalo set the entire country abuzz with news of this technological marvel which literally changed the way Americans thought about their day. As a result, most of us no longer live in fear whenever we start to see the sun dip below the horizon. But, this morning I’d like for us to spend just a few moments trying to forget the relatively new reality of perpetual light with which we live and consider the symbolic meaning of light piercing the darkness as a way of thinking about our journey with God and through the rhythms of this particular time of year.

This season of Epiphany within which we find ourselves is a relative newcomer to the liturgical calendar. Its origins lie somewhere in the fourth century, beginning with a feast which celebrated Christ’s baptism. But over a period of time it came to be associated with Jesus’manifestation to the Gentiles, and the Magi in Matthew’s gospel, in particular. So it is that over a period of anywhere from four to six weeks we go on a pilgrimage that begins with the baptism of Jesus and ends with the story of his transfiguration before his disciples. And, even more importantly for those of us in the Northern hemisphere, this particular stretch of narratives takes place during the coldest and the darkest time of the year—what we might call, using the hymn writer’s language, the “bleak midwinter.”

So, here we are smack dab in the middle of the time when Christina Rossetti reminds us of “frosty wind, snow on snow, earth standing hard as iron, and water like a stone”—appealing images aren’t they? They conjure up for me a couple of winters spent in England where, though it usually doesn’t get as cold as it does here in the American Midwest, the winter dampness seems to penetrate into one’s very bones, creating a perpetual chill. One gains very little solace from centuries-old houses without insulation or central heating. It was in such an environment that I walked into a small village parish church one morning to see the vicar before service furiously hacking away at the frozen ice standing in the baptismal font. I have thought often since then that the poor child who was welcomed into the Kingdom that day probably was forever traumatized by the event and, most likely, turned his back early on both the church and the cold of winter!

These images of darkness, cold, and perpetual dampness need to be seared into our senses in order for us to come even close to the power of our opening lessons. For, when Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” or when the Psalmist proclaims, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” we shouldn’t imagine a world like the one we know but, rather, one in which any illumination or warmth was seen as nothing less than a gift of God, a marvel beyond belief. In the Old Testament lesson, in particular, these wondrously warm and evocative phrases are set next to contrasting ones of “deep darkness” and “gloom.” They conjure up a world of bitter cold and harsh realities—something like the infamous NFL “Ice Bowl” game of 1967 from my childhood when Dallas squared off against Green Bay and frostbite plagued both sides of the field as Hall-of-Fame coaches Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry prowled the sidelines. This is still the way Canadians play football when the Grey Cup is hosted in the tundra of northern Saskatchewan where the wind chill approaches 40- or 50-below and the receivers slam into the turf, only to bounce quickly back up (like a rubber ball). It’s the way championship football should be played—without long silly commercials, specially-insulated boxes for the rich and famous, and certainly without the comforts of some dome in California, Florida, or Texas. For it is then, and only then, when you see beards caked in frost, frozen limbs snapping in the cold air, and spittle freezing on impact that you can appreciate players who lay their bodies out as a living sacrifice to the game.

This theme of not being able to truly appreciate the joys and comforts of life until we have experienced their opposite is not only illustrated by the biblical writers through the use of contrasting images but through the very choice of allusions. But, again, we oftentimes misinterpret them. For instance, when the Psalmist says that his one desire is to live in the temple “all the days of my life,” many of us euphemize or spiritualize the meaning, trying to force it to say something like “going to heaven, “ or “being with God.” But, “in ancient Israel, those who lived in the temple precincts were fugitives fleeing from opponents or persons given to the temple,” (Craddock, Preaching the New Common Lectionary, Epiphany Year A, 133). The dwelling place of God, then, was understood to be a place of refuge when none else was available or of providing a sense of vocation, as with the prophet, Samuel. As the lamp stands were lit each evening in the sanctuary, the light projected out into the temple precincts would have been interpreted as a beacon of hope to the hopeless and a place of safety and protection for the weary traveler and pilgrim.

While we might not break forth in rhapsodic lovelorn joy with Romeo to say, “What light through yonder window breaks?” perhaps you have experienced the comfort of arriving at your destination after unanticipated challenges along the way. At such times, the soft glow of the kitchen light back at home can be a welcoming sign to all those tired and worn out—a modern version of the Victorian “light left in the window.” This is the backdrop for understanding the gospel writer’s use of the familiar Old Testament passage as Jesus officially launches out on his ministry on the heels of his temptation in the wilderness. Unlike the Hebrews who also faced trials in the desert, Jesus successfully navigated his way into the new “Promised Land” and the time was, indeed, fulfilled in what the Gospel writer calls the “Galilee of the Gentiles.” For Matthew, Jesus has become the living presence of the reign of God. As “light of the world” (to use the Evangelist John’s phrase) Jesus beckons others to follow him, beginning with two sets of brothers employed in their everyday work of mending nets. Somehow, they recognize in this Galilean those qualities that we associate with light—illumination, hope, refuge, and a sense of comfort and joy.

But, while light carries with it all of these benevolent connotations, there are malevolent ones to bear in mind, as well. And all it takes to remind us is turning on the evening news to hear another heartbreaking story of someone who has employed an aging space heater in an attempt to find warmth and has wound up dying in the process from the accidental fire created by it. Since time immemorial, fire has also been seen as both purgative and destructive. For Elizabethan church goers, with whom I am familiar, their eyes were literally seared with John Foxe’s almost-pornographic images of the death of the martyrs. Dr. Rowland Taylor was saying the 51st Psalm as he made his way towards his death, using the English version provided in Cranmer’s Prayer Book. For not saying it in Latin, the accompanying justice, Sir John Shelton struck him boldly across the mouth. Ironically enough, the Psalm text reads: “For thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it thee; but thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.”

But on this day, Dr. Taylor was to indeed be burnt on the rough ground outside of his parish along what is now Angel Street. Emerging from the depths of a pitch barrel which was to act as an accelerant, the minister received a deadly blow from the local drunkard to whom he had given his boots but minutes before as an act of charity. His brain matter still staining the ground beneath him, he was lifted into the fire kindled with faggots “cut from the hedgerows and copses he had passed on his walks. The greasy smoke could have drifted down into his own rectory garden,” says Ronald Blythe (Divine Landscapes, 70). As his corpse was rendered slowly into ash, the sizeable audience which perhaps consisted of the entire population of his little parish went from crying to somber reflection rendering the execution into something of a prayer-meeting. Like the other 231 Marian burnings documented by Foxe, Taylor’s willingness to “give his body to be burned” (in the words of the apostle Paul) rendered him famous in a way probably impossible in an age when death was as common as a text message in ours. Latimer’s challenge to Ridley that their funeral pyres would set all of England ablaze took on a sense of permanence, thanks to an act of Parliament which ordered a copy of Foxe to be purchased and placed in the narthex of every church throughout the land.

If, as Matthew suggests, Jesus’ announcement was something of a continuation of John the Baptist’s preaching, then it contained not only an element of hope but one of warning, as well. Jesus here takes up the Baptist’s baton like something of a tag-team preacher and proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” (4:17). In John’s rendition of the message, that call had been bathed in the fires not of warmth but of purgation. The stubble-burning imagery which he had conjured up was meant to awaken an audience—not comfort it. Likewise, the candles which we light so serenely in our beautiful Advent wreaths carry a kind of double-entendre: bringing hope, yes, but also whipping up the sights and smells of fire in an attempt to awaken us from our nocturnal sleep.

On that beloved isle to which my mind so often turns, this was the purpose of the coastal watch which went back all the way to the days of Roman Britain. There, scattered along the dips and dives of Kentish countryside, fresh kindling lay always at the ready for the torch which would announce the coming of an invasion. All along the promontory, at every small hill and extended elevation, the fires would be lit like an ancient telegraph line to warn those up and down the countryside that the foreigner was at the gates and that all should be watchful and ready. These small warning fires were meant to jerk villagers from their lethargy lest larger fires of perdition descend on them from an invading Gaul, Viking, or Norman.

Likewise, today’s texts beckon us away from the familiarity of the gospel narratives which dot Matthew’s introduction to Jesus’ ministry proper. We are moving away, now, from the infant Jesus sought by the Magi and even the transitional Jesus of the temptation narrative who is in preparation for a ministry yet to come. With the calling of Peter and Andrew, James and John, our story is firmly underway and, whether we like it or not, we being propelled with Jesus towards the crowds that await him and ultimately will turn on him at his death. And, temporally, though the memories of the Christmas and New Year’s just past remain firmly imbedded in our minds, we are no longer knee-deep in holidays and the turning of the New Year. No, 2011 is firmly begun and, as those of us who teach at the college are well aware, Interterm has come to an end and this week starts what we call the “spring” term.

It has been weeks now since we passed the shortest day of the year and according to British psychologist Cliff Arnall this past week we made our way through Blue Monday, the most miserable day of the year. According to the Guardian, Blue Monday is “the most depressing day of the year, a terrible day to start a new job, try anything productive or do anything other than go back to bed and wait for it to pass.” But pass it has and we’ve only a couple more weeks to get to the Transfiguration. And then, of course, we’re on to Lent and fish fries and a couple more hours of daylight. And before you know it, the purples and yellows of crocuses will be upon us and the vernal equinox will announce that all is right with the world yet again.

But for now, perhaps it is fitting to not only say good-bye to Interterm and the Christmas holidays which presaged it, but to contemplate as Colleen Carroll Campbell did in Thursday’s Post-Dispatch just how we might engage all of this time that lies ahead of us in view of the light of Epiphany. Interestingly, she cites a recent interview by the journalist Greta Van Susteren with 92-year-old Billy Graham, now thoroughly in the winter days of his life. The evangelist who gained fame by preaching to millions, apparently surprised the vaunted interviewer by saying that he wished to “pray more, travel less, take less speaking engagements. . . If I had it do over again, I’d spend more time in meditation and prayer.” His junior partner in religious leadership, the more youthful 83-year-old Pope Benedict XVI sounded a similar note in his interview with German journalist Peter Seewald. When the enthusiastic newsman complimented him on his prolific publishing career and energetic schedule, the Pope said he wished he had cultivated “discretion, deeper examination, time for interior pondering, vision. . . and meditating about God.” He went on to say that “one should not feel obliged to work ceaselessly,” but instead to concentrate on “his inner view of the whole, his interior recollection, from which the view of what is essential can proceed.”

In her column, Campbell suggests that “our postmodern fixation on round-the-clock productivity and constant communication may be making our winter blues a year-round affair. Several studies,” she says, “have linked multi-tasking—especially the electronic sort—to increased stress and diminished concentration.” She even cites Eric Brende’s book, Better Off, in which he recounts “his journey with his wife from MIT to an Amish-type community and, eventually, a low-tech life as a rickshaw driver, soapmaker and homeschooling-father in St. Louis.” While few of us might wish to follow this kind of radical turnaround in life, it does shine a light on the nefariousness and subtle nature of how we can become encumbered by all around us to an extent that we fail to focus on the most important things in life.

So, this morning’s texts have attempted to illuminate something of the darkness around us, to offer us words of hope, to warn us of getting too near the fires of cultural death and destruction, and to begin to pay attention to the journey which lies yet ahead towards life, death, and resurrection. This, my friends, is the perpetual light of Epiphany which shines for all those with eyes to see. May God grant us wisdom as we join with those first disciples in following Jesus on life’s journey.