Almost every year during the Christmas season, I find myself in conversations about why we celebrate Christmas when we do. I remember one person commenting, “Every day is Christmas for me. We don’t know what time of year Jesus was born, do we? So I can celebrate his birth all through the year.” I certainly couldn’t dispute that! We really have no idea when Jesus was born, either what date or season, or even exactly what year.
What the Christian Church has done is to choose a birthday for Jesus. We have chosen a time of year to celebrate and give thanks for the birth of Christ, for God’s incarnation among us. The probable reason for the selection of December 25th was to coincide with pagan festivals that were being held around the time of the Winter Solstice. I can imagine the Christian leaders speculating… Perhaps if we celebrate a mass for Christ at that time, Christians will be less inclined to get caught up in those other pagan celebrations. There’s good sense in that reasoning.
And yet, there are other good reasons for celebrating the incarnation at the end of December. As John’s Gospel proclaims, Jesus is the Light of the World. And so we celebrate his coming at the darkest, coldest time of the year, when the days are so short and we are longing for light.
Many religious traditions do something similar. Jewish people, for example, celebrate the miracle of light with Hanukkah, an eight-day holiday that commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after a small group of revolutionaries prevailed over a large army of occupiers. The amount of oil left to light the sacred flame was only enough for one night, and yet it lasted for eight. Just when we are convinced that there is not enough light to illumine God’s path, the miracle unfolds and the fire blazes.
The Hindu festival of “Diwali” is another tradition popularly known as the “festival of lights.” It involves the lighting of small clay lamps filled with oil to signify the triumph of good over evil. And there are many other religious and cultural festivals that take place around the time of the Winter Solstice. Many involve lanterns, candles, bonfires, and other symbols of light and warmth, serving as hopeful reminders that the light will return, the days will get longer, and all will be well.
Today we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord, and “epiphany” simply means a “showing” or “shining forth.” As the wise men followed a bright shining star to find the Messiah who had been born in Bethlehem, we celebrate God’s presence and love being shown to us, being revealed to us, shining forth for us in Jesus’ birth, and life, and ministry.
In a pastoral reflection on this morning’s passage from Isaiah 60, I like the way that Karen Pidcock-Lester summarizes the message of the Epiphany. First of all, she reminds us that the darkness is real and pervasive. Not only do we have short days and long cold nights at this time of year in Regina, but the people of our city and people throughout the world are struggling in the darkness of poverty, conflict, despair, illness, and more.
Each of us will be able to point to some times in our lives when figurative darkness has been all around… in the chaos and confusion following the sudden death of a loved one, in the anxiety and helplessness of supporting a family member through a critical illness, in the despair of serious depression or other mental health issues, in the anguish of marital breakdown, the humiliation of failures in our careers, or the distress of serious financial problems.
And even if our personal lives are going smoothly, we share in the collective struggles of our world, the darkness and despair that is so evident in school shootings, children living in poverty, gangs and violence in our neighbourhoods and throughout the world.
In his message to the people of Israel so many centuries ago while they were struggling in the Babylonian exile, the Prophet Isaiah voiced what God knows – the grim realities of life in this sinful world, and just how thick the darkness can get. He wrote, “Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.”
But he does not stop with that discouraging reality check. Isaiah continues, proclaiming, “Your light has come.” Even now, there is light shining in the darkness.
Pidcock-Lester creatively describes that light as follows: “It is as though the world were a blackened stage. No house lights are on, no footlights, no stage lights. The actors cannot see where they are going; they grope their way through their scenes. Then from above the stage, beyond the catwalk, a single spotlight cuts into the darkness with a cone of brightness, casting a circle on the floor. The light shines on some of the people who stumble blindly in darkness.”
Many times over the years, members of this congregation have wondered aloud to me how people without the gift of faith manage to get through life. These comments are usually made in the midst of the struggles of life, during times of loss, confusion, illness, or death. “This is so hard,” I’ve heard people say many times, “But I’m going to be okay because I know that I’m not alone. I can keep going and remain hopeful because God is my strength and my salvation. I just don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have my faith in God.”
I don’t know what to say when people wonder about others who don’t have faith. I don’t know how they make it through the darkness that so often comes upon us in life. And so in those conversations, I often encourage us to pause and simply give thanks to God for the gift of faith. Pidcock-Lester writes, “It is grace that has shined this light. Grace has chosen the ones who find themselves dwelling in the brightness of the circle. It is not their light that shines, but the light of the Lord, and it falls on whom it will.”
Grace has its privileges. Isaiah writes, “Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” You see, even in the midst of the darkness, those on whom the light has shined can see things that others can’t. With the eyes of faith, we’re able to see the myriad ways that God’s love and goodness are being shared. We’re able to focus our eyes on justice, kindness, and generosity growing in our lives and relationships and world. And we’re able to look forward in time towards the great and glorious day when all will be made right, when God’s kingdom will be complete. And we’re able to keep moving step by step towards that vision.
Isaiah proclaims that the people on whom light has shined will be able to see what grace is doing if they “lift up [their] eyes and look around.” If they do, they will be radiant. Their hearts will thrill and rejoice, for they will be able to live with a vision of the new realm, and in the confidence that this realm is already coming to pass.
Of course, grace also has its responsibilities. Isaiah shouts, “Arise, Shine; for your light has come!” And this is not an invitation. It’s a command. Pidcock-Lester reminds us that “the light has not come merely to rescue a chosen few from darkness. The light has come so that others will be drawn out of the darkness into the circle of light.” As Isaiah wrote, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
And so, we who have received the gift of faith, and the experience of God’s light shining on us, showing us the way through life, encouraging us with hope and expectation for all that God has in store for us… We cannot stop with mere gratitude to God for the gift. We are being sent to “Arise and Shine!” Not only are we to invite others to enter into the light and share in the experience that we have found here, but we are called to shine ourselves – to reflect the light of God’s love and grace into the darkest places in our world.
Of course, there are many different ways that we can go about shining and reflecting the light of God’s love. The main thing is that we use our own particular gifts to share God’s love in our families, communities, and world.
If you want some inspiration, one good place to go is the latest edition of the Presbyterian Connection newspaper that arrived in mid-December.
You can read about a congregation in Hamilton Ontario that hosted an “Overdose Awareness Day” last summer. The event included educational speakers and displays, as well as training on how to use both injectable and nasal spray Naloxone to save the life of someone who may be overdosing. St. Paul’s has partnered with a community organization that is working to provide primary health care, community health and harm reduction services, as well as mental health and addictions counselling, meal programs and more.
I was also inspired by the reflections from Vivian Ketchum, an Indigenous Presbyterian who lives in Winnipeg. Although Vivian lives on a very limited income, she shared in the newspaper about how she has been listening to God’s voice and growing in her generosity towards others. In the past, she often felt scared to give, worried that she might run out of food herself. But now she writes: “I give freely of my food. Yet my cupboards don’t go bare. That is the part I don’t fully understand. It amazes me.”
The newspaper includes stories about a lively Vacation Bible School, an outreach to post-secondary students in Windsor, and an amazing ministry to provide feminine hygiene kits to girls in Kenya so that they don’t have to miss a week of school every month.
In one congregation, volunteers are knitting hats and scarves and mitts for people who visit their local food bank. And in others, the people are using their church buildings in new ways to reach out to their communities in partnership and love.
Together, Canadian Presbyterians are also reflecting God’s light and love in the world through Presbyterian World Service and Development, and through our partners in many parts of the world. We are assisting people in Guatemala, Pakistan, Haiti, Ukraine, in flood-affected areas of B.C., and many other places where communities are suffering from the effects of war or natural disaster.
Presbyterians are getting involved through their personal contributions, fundraising initiatives, work on committees, and their participation in the “Ride for Refuge” to support PWS&D and other good ministries.
As we go out from our worship today, as we go into our families, and workplaces, and communities of friendship and relationship, I pray that we will each experience the grace of God’s light shining on us, and that we will each be inspired to look for every opportunity to reflect that light to those around us.
Let me end with a prayer expressed by the Scottish preacher and author, John Phillip Newell, in a reflection on this celebration of the Epiphany:
“My prayer is that we will remain open-eyed to the light of God’s presence in one another and in everything that emerges from the earth around us, that we may find the ways together to open our eyes and to know that we are invited to be light-bearers that can be part of transformation in our world.” Amen.