Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sometimes a Light Surprises

United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon often reminds those of us who “handle the holy” for a living that virtually everything the Church does is an opportunity to remind ourselves, and to proclaim to the world, just how countercultural we really are. When we perform a wedding we are provided an occasion for proclaiming what we Christians believe about marriage, which is most assuredly at odds with what the world believes about marriage (if they believe in it at all!). Every time we conduct a funeral, we declare what we Christians believe about life and death and resurrection. And even something as seemingly mundane as “telling time” offers an occasion to remind ourselves and the world about the distinctively Christian way we mark our days.

For example, while everyone else in the popular culture is preparing to party tonight for “News Years Eve,” I find myself here in the office working on the sermon for Sunday which has nothing to do with New Years; rather, it’s about Epiphany, for that is what this first Sunday of the new year means to us Christians. It’s Epiphany Sunday, not New Year’s Sunday. (For a fuller treatment of this theme, see my blog, "Telling Time.")

Epiphany, January 6, is the day in the Church’s calendar that marks the official end of the Christmas season (Christmastide, the “Twelve Days of Christmas”) and the beginning of the Epiphany season, the season that begins by reflecting with the Magi on the Coming of the Light into the world, culminates on Transfiguration Sunday in which Christ’s “epiphany” is manifest to the disciples in power and glory, and leads into the Season of Lent when Christians make their own Journey to the Cross as followers of the Light.

In Matthew’s story, the Magi (Persian astrologers) came to Herod (Matthew wryly adds “the king” as though anybody in Palestine dared to doubt it!) and said: “Where is the born king of the Jews (Greek, ho techtheis basileus); for we have seen his star in the East and we have come to worship him.” Matthew’s Magi call Jesus the “born king” rather than the kind of king Herod was, a puppet king installed by the Roman occupational army holding his power at the whim and behest of Caesar. Matthew’s Magi were not looking for the Star; they were looking at the stars and the Star found them, surprised them, captured them, claimed them. It wasn’t what they were looking for, but it turned out to be what they were looking for.

And so it is with you and me. Sometimes a light surprises.

Snowmobilers in the Colorado back country find themselves swept away by an avalanche. A survivor describes the experience in terms of darkness and disorientation, buried in feet of snow, not knowing which way was up or which direction was out. Digging frantically toward what he thought was the surface and safety, he heard “behind and beneath” him a voice. Finally, a light appeared, a hand poked through the snow, and he was pulled to the light, to freedom and safety.

Sometimes a light surprises.

Some years ago, I was in the Holy Land with a group of seminary students. One afternoon on our way home to the Center for Biblical Studies in Jerusalem where we were ensconced for the month we were there, I decided to detour to Bet-Guvrin and visit the famous Bell Caves of Marisa. An ancient limestone quarry, the bell caves (nearly 800 in all) were used in the Byzantine and Early Muslim periods by Arabic speaking Christians who hid out there to worship in secrecy and security. The caves are now peppered with Christian graffiti and drawings, mostly in Arabic, betokening a now-silent witness to the faith of long-departed brothers and sisters maintained in dark and difficult days. It was January 6th when we were there, Epiphany in the Western Christian calendar, Christmas in the Eastern calendar, and so I suggested that since the caves provided such excellent acoustics, we should sing Christmas carols. A student started and we all joined in. Then, during the singing of Silent Night, a couple of young Arab men walked into the cave, apparently summoned by our singing. One appeared to be carrying a weapon, and I don’t mind telling you that I was nervous. We were not on our published itinerary and no one knew where we were. I thought to myself, “They could waste the lot of us right here and it would be days before they would find us!” But just then, one of the young men started singing with us, in Arabic! “Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm, all is bright.” They were Christians! And right there in the Bell Caves of Marisa, cultural divides were crossed, prejudices were swallowed up in community, and Christian brothers and sisters joined voices and joined hands singing praises to the Light the darkness could not snuff out.

Sometimes a light surprises.

This summer past I experienced a dark and disorienting episode in my life. I awakened with some disturbing and foreboding symptoms that, at first blush, seemed life-threatening. For weeks I lived with that dark prospect until at last the diagnosis came. It was not what I had feared at all; rather, it was a rather severe reaction to immunotherapy I had been taking for allergies. As the effects of the immunotherapy diminish, so also do the symptoms. But emerging from the darkness, I was left with something I did not anticipate – clarity, perspective, purpose. When I thought I was dying, nothing that had been important only weeks before seemed important anymore. Suddenly, it all seemed so clear – life is a gift; the people with whom I share it are gifts; everyday is a fresh, new gift of God to be enjoyed, celebrated, and shared. And this “epiphany” had come to me as a consequence of my health crisis this past summer. Not what I was looking for, but it turned out to be what I was looking for.

Sometimes a light surprises.

C. S. Lewis once said, “For most of us, the door of heaven opens behind us.”

The secular spin on Epiphany is, “It’s always darkest just before the dawn.” But William Cowper taught us Christians to sing it like this:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in His wings;
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

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