We are now in the midst of Epiphany season, the liturgical time early in the calendar year when we celebrate the revelation of God’s presence in the world, and ponder its implications on our own life and vocation - how do we embody God’s presence day by day; how do we give birth to him, so to speak, in our daily actions, thoughts, and beliefs. The main scriptural symbol of Epiphany is that of light, based on the words of old Simeon that we last week, when he held the six-week-old baby in his arms, and proclaimed him as “the light, that will lighten the Gentiles and bring glory to his people, Israel”. When Jesus became an adult, he continued to say the same thing about himself, well-versed as he was in Biblical symbolism: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” . John the Evangelist puts this assertion into the enigmatic words of the prologue to his gospel, in which he writes that Jesus is the Word, that He was God from the beginning, in Him is life, life is the light of men, shining in the darkness. Today’s passage continues to extend the theme of light to our own existence. We heard Jesus say, “You are the light of the world” to his followers. Note that Jesus doesn’t say “be salt; be light”, or “become such”: no, “you are”. That is very encouraging, given that what precedes this passage is the Beatitudes - the epitome of human character development, and a seemingly impossible standard to achieve. Yet, Jesus says that his light is not something to be ignited, but rather to be allowed to shine, to be inhabited and made your own. It’s still a tall order, since Jesus describes us as “the light of the world”, not just “Don Mills”...
In the Northern hemisphere, in January and February, the symbolism of the return of light into the world after a long period of cold and darkness is hard to miss. We all readily notice and are encouraged by even a few minutes of extra daylight, and the promise of spring, warmth, and renewal that it brings. But all cultures, even those less obsessed with the coming of spring, have celebrations of light because of its universal significance. Today, we are all less dependent on fire for safety, heat, light and food, but the image of a small flickering flame speaks to most of us in one way or the other. What does it mean to you? The Children's Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem consists of a single octagonal chamber lined with mirrors, in the middle of which, a single candle is burning, symbolizing the infinite iteration and worth of each human being. In the Orthodox tradition, it is customary to light a candle as soon as you enter the church. This practice is rooted in the Easter vigil service, where hand-held candles are lit from the one huge candle (called the Paschal candle), which itself is lit from the sacred fire burning outside the church. Symbolically, the light of Christ begins to enter into a dark building, but it is carried in the hands of the people. From the same Paschal candle, we would receive this light at our baptism, and it will burn at our funeral. We also carry it into our marriage, as our parents light our unity candle from theirs. For me, personally, the flame of a candle has a strong symbolic relationship as it relates to our capacity to love. You see, when we light one candle from another, the flame of the first candle is in no way made smaller by sharing the light. Similarly, I observed with great astonishment that after the birth of Lucas and Alexandra, my love for the older siblings was never diminished, despite the reservations I might have had about these new stages of life.
And so, as we think of all of the dark events of the world, we do ponder this universal theme of light, and how our actions can either bring light or retain darkness. Jesus says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven“. He uses a couple of illustrations to help them understand. First, “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden”. The Greek word translated as ‘hill’ is ‘orous’ which is more correctly translated as ‘mountain’, and it is of course, on a mountain in the scriptures where God’s revelations often take place (e.g., Sinai for Moses, Transfiguration for disciples) - the place of God’s greatest revelation is a human heart! Second, “a lit lamp is not put under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house”. In psalm 119, it is God’s word that is likened to “a lamp unto my feet”, but it is also understood as an enlightened person or community. When people see us in our daily lives, when they hear our words and conversations, when they see us face unexpected struggles and crises, will they see God’s light in our actions? Or will they simply say there seems to be no difference between us and any secular person? Or worse, would they say, "if a Christian behaves like that then I don’t want to be one".
What baskets in our lives tend to cover up our lights? Is it our pride, greed, envy, being busy, and unconfessed guilt? Thinking of the city-lights that reveal its presence, a story about Paris during WWI comes to mind. Dismayed by the new style of warfare resulting in the nightly bombings of the city, the French officials decided to trick the Germans, and build a whole fake Paris center upstream of its location, complete with a mock Eiffel tower, and to light it up at nights to distract the pilots from the real, blacked-out Paris. You’ve probably never heard of this moment in history because the war ended before the project was ready. But isn’t fear often the number one reason to black-out our light, and to construct the fake version of ourselves: the one that doesn’t hurt as much as our real self if it’s attacked, the one that helps us feel less vulnerable? And what causes us to be most afraid in this life: it is, of course, the unknown. It is the ignorance of God that leads us to fear religion; the ignorance of the other - to hate; the ignorance of life’s purpose - to fear death. Light verses Darkness. Enlightenment vs. Fear. We all have a choice to make. Do we want to allow God’s light, already burning within our beings, to transform our entire perspective on living and make us ever more righteous than the Pharisees? Or will we choose to ignore this light, and allow the darkness to engulf us and lead us to despair? The light of God’s image will always burn within each of us, but the choice to uncover it is ours - with God’s help, of course.