Pause for a moment to consider your own response. “Do people who suffer deserve to suffer? Are the bad things that happen to us our fault? Is there a connection between suffering and sin? Is God punishing us when we suffer?”
They were weighed down with sleep—but they stayed awake, it says. Icons of the Transfiguration often show the disciples lying on the ground while Jesus and Moses and Elijah stand in glory on the mountain peak. Perhaps Peter and John and James are in that half-awake, half-asleep state we all know. That dusky neither daylight nor dark state, that in betweenness familiar to people everywhere. The disciples do awaken more fully to the mystery light before them in the days ahead, in the months and years ahead, those bracing months and years ahead—and in the eternity to which they have finally arrived.
A few days ago I held a baby. That might not seem like such a remarkable thing, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a chance to do it. I suspect it’s been a couple of years. Babies don’t frequent monasteries much.
Holding a baby is wonderful. That is, it’s an experience full of wonder. I marveled at his tiny fingernails, perfectly shaped on the end of delicate little fingers. And his full brown eyes, captivated by the lights in the ceiling of the chapel. The incredible softness of his head against my cheek, and the sweet smell of his hair. At first he was squirming, but then he settled in, dropped his head on my shoulder and relaxed. I could feel his breathing. I thought, what a miracle! To be alive! To be breathing, and seeing, and hearing, and touching. Wonderful!
The Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula was intent to install his bust in the Temple in Jerusalem. And why not? The Emperor was the emperor, after all, and one of his many titles, Divi Filius (Son of God), was inscribed on every coin used by Romans and Jews alike. In Jesus’ lifetime, the Roman Emperor was called “Divine,” and was titled “Lord,” “Redeemer,” “Liberator,” and “Savior of the World.” So why not install his own bust in the Temple in Jerusalem? There was huge resistance to this threat of desecration among the Jewish community, as might be imagined. A revolt was predicted… which is why we read in the Gospel appointed for today about wars and rumors of wars: the Jews versus Rome, nation against nation. And to compound the tension and despair, our Gospel lesson speaks of a severe, multi-year drought that affected the lands east of the Mediterranean. The good news we hear on Jesus’ lips is that the end is not yet. This may seem like the end, but it’s not yet… which is a word of hope. Our knowing that historic information will make a difference how we make meaning of this Gospel lesson appointed for today: the historical context in which Jesus spoke.
There is a word, or at least the implication of a word that pops up frequently during these days of Easter. Jesus implies it when he tells Mary Magdalene in the Garden on that first Easter Day to “… go to my brothers and say to them ….”1 And Mary certainly acts on it when she proclaims to the disciples ‘“I have seen the Lord” and [then] she told them that he had said these things to her.’2 Jesus himself uses it when he says to the assembled disciples “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”3
The first reading for today begins with the words, “Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old command-ment is the word that you have heard.” I think that we can recognize that old commandment as the “Law of Love”, found in our Prayer Book in a variant form as “The Summary of the Law”. Briefly, “Love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Christmas is here! The prophet Isaiah proclaims it with ringing words of joy: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who live in a land of deep darkness – on them has light shined.”(Isa 9:2) Tonight we celebrate with great joy the birth of Jesus, the coming of a great light to a land of deep darkness.
I love the lights of Christmas. I love Christmas tree lights, the lights I saw a few weeks ago along Fifth Avenue and at Rockefeller Center. I even love – and this is a new one for me – the Christmas lights in people’s front yards and all over their houses – illuminated Father Christmases, glowing reindeer, pulsating stars and flashing greeting signs. My all time favorite is one a friend sent me on the internet. It’s amazing. A house and yard in Ohio are covered with 45,000 lights and operated by 176 computer channels. The display is synchronized to a rock version of Amazing Grace. It’s so popular there are huge traffic jams in the area, and there is a crew of three policemen to manage the traffic!
Four times a day when I was at seminary in England we were called to chapel by the sound of a bell. And on that bell were inscribed, in Greek, the words “faithful is he who calls.” (1 Th 5:24) Faithful is he who calls. And our readings today on this second Sunday of Epiphany are all about being called.
In Isaiah we read, “The Lord called me before I was born. While I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” Called into being – and named. That is what God has been doing from the beginning of Genesis, where he called the creation into being and then named it. “God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night.”
Each one of us were called into being by God – and given a name to show that we have a unique and special vocation. “The Lord called me before I was born. While I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” We are not just anybody – not just a number, a statistic.
We are each unique. We are, each of us, as the Psalmist puts it, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Ps 139:14)
If we know someone is coming, we wait for them. After a while, waiting becomes longing. Now, as we approach the darkest day of the year, we long for the return of light. Now, as we see that “darkness covers the land and deep gloom enshrouds the peoples” (as Isaiah put it), we long for the return of light.
We’ve been celebrating the return of light for thousands of years. Nearly every culture has ways of celebrating the Winter Solstice, the day when the hours of sunlight, having become less and less, begin to increase again.
“Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night…” [BCP p. 70] For most of human existence the “perils and dangers” of the night have not been metaphorical or poetic or emotional. The night, the darkness, was a time of actual physical danger—danger from predatory animals, danger from unseen enemies, danger from simply not being able to see things. Darkness could mean death, actual loss of life. And, so, light has become the giver of life. In celebrating light, we celebrate life.