I speak to you in the Name of Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. Amen.
Just before Christmas, many of us were like the wisemen (or the magi) in today’s Gospel story, in that our eyes were focused on the night sky. The most recent Winter Solstice also happened to be the occasion of a rare conjunction of the planets Saturn and Jupiter. This received quite a bit of attention in the news and on social media; and some wondered if this phenomenon was at all similar to the Star of Bethlehem which announced the birth of Jesus Christ. If you’re interested in this question I encourage you to join us for an upcoming Zoom presentation on this subject by our very own space expert Howard Jones.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere where we live, this is the darkest time of the year. As you well know, the days are short, the sun sets quite early in the evening. And although the last few days have been sunny, when the daytime hours are cloudy and dreary (as they were previously), it can feel as though we’re in darkness all the time. This past week, in Washington D.C. we witnessed some darkness of another kind with the riot at the U.S. Capitol building; and then of course there is the worsening pandemic and warnings of curfews and further lockdown measures.
So it seems there’s darkness all around!
And on top of all that, perhaps you’re dealing with your own personal darkness of whatever kind – depression, seasonal-affective disorder, discouragement, loneliness, isolation, bereavement … fill-in-the-blank for yourself.
In the words of today’s first reading from Isaiah, for behold, darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples.
However, in terms of the calendar, the good news is that we have passed the turning point of the year: the Winter Solstice. The shortest and darkest day of all (December 21st) is now in our rear-view mirror, and the hours of daylight are slowly but steadily increasing every day.
In the Church calendar, we have just celebrated Christmas, the birth of Jesus; and today we celebrate Epiphany, a word meaning ‘striking appearance.’ Jesus, the Light of the world, has appeared. He has dawned on us to bring light and life. That is what we celebrate in this Epiphany season.
So Christmas and Epiphany come just after the Winter Solstice, as the daylight hours begin to increase – and this is no accident.
The return of daylight at this time of year has always been cause for rejoicing. For example, in ancient Rome, the society in which the Church first emerged, they celebrated the festival of Sol Invictus, ‘the unconquered sun.’
And in a northern climate such as ours, it’s easy to understand the motivation behind such festivals: the increasing hours of daylight remind us that even though the hardest part of winter is yet to come, we are surely on the road to spring.
The fact that Christmas and Epiphany coincide with the Winter Solstice has given rise to much suspicion. Did the early Church just co-opt this pagan sun festival and give it a Christian meaning?
Well partly, I think they probably did, but not just out of mere convenience. Because, you see, the fact that Christmas/Epiphany occur just after the Winter Solstice has profound symbolic significance. In this, as in so many other things, the natural world is a parable of spiritual truth. God has created heaven and earth in such a way that the natural processes show us something of Himself, like God’s personal signature or artistic touch.
So how, then, does the Winter Solstice shed light on Christmas & Epiphany? Well, Christmas & Epiphany together are indeed a kind of sun festival. At this time of year, Christians celebrate the dawning of the Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ.
‘Sun of Righteousness’ is one of the descriptive titles for Jesus we see in the Bible, and it’s referred to in the great carol ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’:
‘Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace, Hail the Sun of Righteousness / Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings.’
At Christmas & Epiphany, we celebrate the rising of a new and better sun; the dawning and increase of a light which overcomes the darkness of this present world, a light which shines to life eternal.
And that is what our first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is all about: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
The first point here is simply that God is light. But how exactly? What do God and the sunlight have in common? Well, both of them bring life, truth, and beauty.
Life, truth and beauty – that is what God radiates. That is what shines on us now in this season of Epiphany. Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Notice that Isaiah’s words are addressed to God’s people Israel, to us. The message is that because the Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ, has dawned on us, we must now arise and shine like little suns or stars. We are light because the Light of the world, the glory of the LORD, shines upon us and dwells among us. So having received this light, we become what we have been given, and shine as the light to the nations, to all peoples, to our community and neighbourhood.
And Isaiah says the nations and peoples will come this light. There’s something irresistibly attractive about this light that gets people’s attention and inspires them to come near. How exactly does this happen?
To see, we have to look back to the previous two chapters in Isaiah, where he envisions that the LORD will deliver Israel from its own transgressions. Then its beacon of Mt. Zion will become a city where yokes of oppression are broken, where bread is shared, where the naked are clothed and the homeless housed (ch. 58).
So the glorious light of the LORD is refracted through His people Israel as generosity, justice, mercy, and kindness. That’s what causes the nations to stand up, take notice, and be drawn to the light.
Friends, my hope, my vision is that St. James can become precisely this right here in the heart of this village of Caledon East. This vision will be fleshed out in a strategic plan for the next three years that will be presented to vestry at the end of February. The pandemic is an opportunity to re-imagine how we do things, how we partner with community organizations that share a common commitment to justice. This is a time to re-examine how we use the building and property God has entrusted to us, to ensure that we are indeed using it as a light house for Christ. Again, what will make this church an attractive beacon of light is for it to become a home of generosity, justice, mercy, and kindness for the whole community. That is life, truth, and beauty. That light is the light of God Himself dwelling among and shining through us.
This is exactly how the early Church grew in ancient Rome, despite frequent persecution. The first Christians shone with a noticeable brightness in these areas: integrity, generosity, hospitality, sympathy, handling of adversity, promotion of human life and flourishing, and seeking justice and equality.
So friends, Isaiah’s message for us today is not just that in Christ we are no longer in darkness, but that we have become light in the Lord so that others may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.
So that’s at a community level. I want to conclude by talking about what this means for each of us as individuals.
Friends, what we are being told here this morning, is that if the light of God has really dawned on your soul, you will experience life and growth, you will be made beautiful.
So here today in the light of God’s truth, ask yourself, is this true of you? Ask yourself, am I growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, meekness, humility, faithfulness, and self-control? Measure yourself against your own past. Am I a more patient person than I was two years ago? Also ask, do I speak the truth in love? Is my changed character attracting people? Am I a good person to be around?
If the answer to these questions is ‘No,’ do not be discouraged, because if you’re able to see and admit that, then that is itself evidence that the light of God’s truth is shining upon you. And because the light has been turned on, you will no longer walk in darkness.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24–25 ESV)