We’ve put away the Christmas decorations. The trees are either waiting or have already been recycled. And here we are singing Christmas carols one more Sunday. Are you ready to move on, or would you rather linger just one more day in the glow of Christmas? This is one of those times when the culture of the church clashes with American culture. Stores light up their Christmas displays no later than the first of October every year. The day after Christmas stores look shabby, strewn with returns, shelves half empty. Garbage cans overflow with wrapping paper and Styrofoam packing. Christmas is now 75% off—deeply discounted to make room for Valentine’s Day merchandise. Only some of our neighbors bother to turn on their outdoor lighting displays. We’re done. We move on. The glow of Christmas barely lasts a week until the New Year arrives filled with bowl games, parties, and fireworks.
But while merchants sell twinkling Christmas tree lights and play “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” in elevators, the church draws our attention to the darkness in which so many people live. The church focuses on the birth of a single baby as a symbol of God’s extraordinary, powerful love—God’s very presence in the world. While we decorate our homes and hang lights from our eaves, the church affirms that Christ reveals the Light of the world and gathers on Christmas Eve to place a single candle in the hands of each worshiper as we sing songs of praise. After the wrapping paper is discarded and crèches packed away, after the fireworks of New Year, the church keeps watch in honor of astronomers, wise men of old, who followed a shining star to Bethlehem to worship the newborn King on bended knee, offering their precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. After our culture packs Christmas away for another year, the church lingers in awe and reverence and wonder. The light blazing in the night sky; the Light, tiny and helpless in a manger, the Light passed from one trembling hand to another on Christmas Eve.
While our culture urges us to pack up and move on, to get busy and produce, the church invites us to linger, to rest, to allow ourselves to be made whole, and to be made new. John’s gospel proclaims that the Light gives us the power to become children of God. The letter to the Ephesians declares that we are joint heirs with Christ. The apostle Paul makes an even bolder claim. He says that we are the body of Christ. Not only does the light shine on us, the Light shines through us.
Light is the symbol of the season we call Epiphany. An epiphany is like a light bulb that goes off over our heads when get an idea or when we finally understand something. For me, the epiphany of Christmas is that God can be known in and through human beings. God can be born in me and in you. We can be radiant with the light of God. God can live in us like God lived in Jesus. We can live like Jesus. We are God’s light that shines in the darkness.
Steve and I drove returned from eastern Washington this week driving across two mountain passes after dark. The night sky was filled with stars, more than we could count. The constellations, named by ancient astronomers, shone brightly ready to guide mariners and adventurers as they have for centuries. All of that glory was obscured as we drew closer to the light pollution of Seattle. We are so used to being able to turn on artificial lights, that we often forget the wonder of God’s light, shining even in the darkest night, and the rhythms of light and dark, activity and rest, both gifts from God. We disrupt those rhythms with light that blots out the grandeur of the night sky. I wonder if the ways that we have come to celebrate Christmas have not obscured the delicate splendor of the miracle of God’s presence being revealed in the stillness of the night.
I was in a restaurant this week where I was struck by the beauty of water pitchers on a tray, filled with iced water ready to be served, and each pitcher was glowing with a warm golden light from within. Each pitcher reflected a single globe from a nearby lamp. Each was radiant, like it had swallowed the ball of light. That’s what you and I are meant to be, pitchers that reflect the light that glows within us—ready to be poured out to quench the world’s thirst. The light has shown on us and now we carry that light within us. I have this image of us coming to the communion table to swallow the light so that it can shine through us.
Light dispels fear by banishing the imaginary and revealing what is real. That seems like such a simple statement. That’s how it works when we turn a light on in a child’s bedroom at night. That’s also how it works when we examine the dark places of our world through the light of God’s love—we may not always like what we see, but once we see reality, we cannot go back to sitting in darkness. It simply will not satisfy us. The more we see of God and experience God’s love, the more we want to live in it, and the more it shines through us. I thought about you when I was gazing at the brilliant night sky. I have seen the beauty of your love as you care for each other and for people you will never know. You read the news and you pray. You hear about natural disasters and you respond. You hear about a neighbor in need and you give. You feed the hungry and wrap sick children in warmth and prayer. You write letters and sign petitions. You vote and you are active on boards that do the heavy lifting in our community. You do shine in the darkness. Just as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed:
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice.
People of God, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.” You are radiant!