This morning, I did something for the last time. I have been doing it each of these last mornings, since the first weekend in December. I have gotten out of bed in the dark of the winter’s early morning and made my way down the stairs. The first thing I do when I walk into the living room is to plug in the lights on the Christmas tree.
It is magnificent. Into the darkness shines a most beautiful light – mostly white lights but a few green and reds ones.
I can’t read the morning paper by the light of this tree – but the radiance of the glow fills me with joy, melancholy, awe, memories – all things are illumined. No matter if you head to the farthest corner of the house away from the tree – you are still aware of the glow. The darkness is invaded, the darkness retreats. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it;” St. John writes. Darkness simply CANNOT overcome light, unless the fire goes out, or the plug is pulled. But if light is shining then darkness “watch out!”
There isn’t an observable line where light stops and darkness starts again… it doesn’t work like that – the glow goes on and on – the closer to the source the brighter and farther away the less bright – like Pluto at the farthest limits of our solar system, and yet the sun’s brightness illumines it.
In our text from Isaiah we read; “Arise, shine for your light has come.” And I imagine the Magi seeing the light from the star in the East, its glow reaching their deepest yearning, arising and making their way to Bethlehem.
The great master painters, playing with light and darkness, have the magi kneeling before the glow of the manger – the face of the Christ child and Mary lit up. The shadows remain, and the darkness is there – for the contrast between light and darkness is what makes for a masterpiece. But always the light illumines and is the central focus.
And, of course, you can’t have shadows without light – anymore than you can have gladness without sadness, or joy without tears, or hope without the reality that the things that we hope for are not yet to be seen. For as St. Paul writes: who hopes for that which can already be seen. Again it is the contrasts of life that make for a masterpiece of living.
Isaiah was a man who radiated the light of God – seeing things and sensing things. He knew about light. “Arise, shine for your light has come and the glory of God has risen upon you.”
I like the Jerusalem Bible’s translations of the text: “Look! Though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples, on you, Yahweh is rising and over you his glory can be seen.”
But then Isaiah goes on; “The nations will come to YOUR light and kings to YOUR dawning brightness.” So the radiance is not over and above you, as if only God possesses it. Rather, YOU become the reflection of the divine light that draws kings and nations.
And so I imagine the Magi, returning by another way – all lit up, so to speak. Just as Moses’ face glowed with the glory of God as he came down the mountain with the tablets, and just as Imogene Herdman’s, the horrible little child in “The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever” – face lit up as the “real” meaning of Christmas hit her like a case of the flu, so too did the very being of the Magi, light up – for they had been in the glow of the glory of God. TS Eliot in his poem “Journey of the Magi” has one of the Magi thinking to himself: “we returned to our places, these kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.” They had changed – they have a glow about them, no longer at ease with the status quo.
Isaiah was writing to a people in exile and he gave them hope that soon, and very soon – Jerusalem would be restored and it wasn’t the Jerusalem that used to be, it was the Jerusalem that WAS to be. “Lift up your eyes and look around, all are assembling, your sons coming from far away and your daughters being carried on the hip. At this sight you will grow radiant, your heart will throb and dilate…”
And the word comes to me today and it is a word for you today – lift up your eyes and look around… grow radiant, listen to your throbbing heart as it expands and dilates. Where are you seeing signs of light in the darkness? Are you aglow, so that people can see the glory of God through you? If you are not shining, why not? If you are not living so that people are drawn to God’s love and mercy and hope – people will go someplace else.
“For night still does cover the earth and darkness the people.” The reality of the wars and rumors of wars, the storms, the shootings, the fiscal cliff, the nasty election, the tragedies, the sudden unexpected deaths, all that shakes us, sobers us, knocks us down, humbles and agitates… ALL OF IT IS REAL, very real and some of us are living in the midst of a shadow world, and many are living in the darkness of want, and the somberness of sadness, and the grayness of grief… but you and I have come to the manger. You and I have been liberated from bondage. You and I have been called and chosen to witness to light and to BE the light.
Yes, if this Christmas incarnation is to mean anything, anything at all – it means that you and I are to be the light in this world and to shine amidst the darkness, and speak truth to power, and envision things and hope for things that are not yet to be. That is the only way for God to shine… through you and me.
And I saw the light shining last Monday when 30 people some from Forest Hill and some from the neighborhood sat down to a New Year’s Eve breakfast in Fellowship Hall.
And the light shone as the team headed out on a wintry night and down the hill into East Cleveland to be with folks who don’t have food or clothing for the winter.
And the light shone even in the deepest dark of Newtown, Ct. as citizens expressed love and support witnessing to something more profound than the killings.
And the light will shine on January 19 when some of us will join together in the workshop “interrupting racism.”
And the light will shine when I can marry a gay couple in this church.
And the light will shine when the minimum wage is raised and someone working 40 hours on $7.50 can feed her own family of four.
And the light will shine when we are more concerned about what others don’t have then in protecting what we possess.
And the light will shine when our hearts and heads move from the question “Why?” to the question “why not?” and from the question “why God?” to “Why not me?”
Lift up your eyes away from the ground, and stand up and look around. You and I need to expand our view, and extend our hands, plug into the source and be the light. People are coming, sons and daughters gathering and what will they see by looking at you? What will they find?
Today we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion – it is the body of Christ. You and I are Magi’s, the seekers, seeing something in the night sky, sensing something burning through the purple haze, bringing our gifts, immersed in life and death, people of the promise, people of the hope, people of the power – we are gathering and coming to the dawning brightness, we are about to assemble and come forward.
Let yourself come, open yourself up, let go. Come to the source of all light and life and then be light and life to others. Enter into other’s joy and suffering, for that is what God did at Christmas. Take a look at where you have come from and strain to see where you want to go – do what you have to do. Come and see and then go and be – be people of the light – shine in the midst – the darkness cannot overcome if you and I stay plugged in.
This afternoon I am going to take down the Christmas tree. I am going to watch the NFL football games and take the lights off the tree. I will place all the precious ornaments in paper and box them. I will carefully place the lights into their little plastic frames. I will take the tree out to the tree lawn. Tomorrow morning I will come down and not plug in the tree – but the radiance remains, always, the radiance remains in my mind and in my heart – and I will turn other lights on and pray that the holy light be turned on in me.
ARISE, SHINE for your light has come! You are the light. Shine on, shine on.