Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. ~ Isaiah 60:1
The celebration of Christmas always involves lights. Every year I am just a little thrilled on Thanksgiving weekend, when the lights begin to appear in my neighborhood. Though I almost never deck out my own house in lights, I am endlessly grateful to those who do. It feels as if they have given me, personally, a gift. For several weeks in the darkest season of the year, my West Side of Binghamton neighborhood is transformed into a fairyland, enchanted, as the lights outline houses, trees, bushes, and everything is suddenly made magical.
When I was in seminary I became aware that ordinarily cynical and hard-bitten New Yorkers became as squishy about the Christmas lights as I do on the day the tree in Rockefeller Center was lit. You’d see it on their faces—from a little embarrassed smile all the way to full-blown glee. Lights in the darkness: without them, we’d hardly know it was Christmas.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
It is hard for us, here on the very first day of 2012, to appreciate what light and darkness meant to ancient people. Imagine a time when you not only couldn’t string LED lights on a tree, you couldn’t illumine anything without benefit of fire. Ordinary people—meaning, most people in the world—couldn’t afford candles until around the year 1800. That means that, when night fell, the darkness was absolute. And the fear of the darkness seems to be hard-wired into us. Darkness feels dangerous, frightening: “We easily get lost in the dark… we stumble around and can’t find our way… we do not know what might be going on: danger may lurk, spirits may roam, evil may be afoot…” Darkness and grief seem to go together as well… we speak of a dark night of the soul. Fear of night evokes that other primal fear, fear of death.[i]
It’s no wonder that light and fire came to be understood as something that came from the gods. From moment when Prometheus shared the secret of fire with humans, we have known it: there is something holy about light. From the time when the Romans celebrated the Feast of the Unvanquished Sun on December 25, we have celebrated it. And from the first verses of Genesis—in which God sings, “Let there be light”—to the last verses of Revelation—in which Jesus is described as “the bright morning star”—scripture has confirmed it. As one write expresses it, “No wonder glory—which means radiance, luminosity—is seen as a central quality of the sacred.”[ii]
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
In our reading from Isaiah this morning we hear all sorts of echoes that say to us, Christmas, Christmas! The glory of the Lord rising and being revealed—we read that and think, “Jesus!” The coming of kings to witness the brightness—we recognize the Magi, following the star to Jesus! Even the talk of camels and gold and frankincense—the gifts of the Magi to Jesus, plus their mode of conveyance! But this passage, in its original context, meant something very different, something that may deepen our own appreciation for the ways in which those Christmas echoes are very real.
This part of Isaiah is speaking to Jews who have returned home following the Babylonian exile. For nearly fifty years Jews had been kept from their homeland, following a terrible and bloody rout in which the Temple was destroyed. When Persia conquered Babylon, and the Persian king gave Jews permission to go home, there was incredible joy and anticipation. They imagined what it would be like to go home, to see the places that were only dimly remembered, but which had been built up in their hearts to epic proportions.
And so they returned, and guess what? What they found broke their hearts. The original, splendid Temple of Solomon was gone, and in its place something that felt more like a roadside shrine. Their sacred places were gone, their homes were gone, Jerusalem was still mostly a pile of rubble. The monarchy—the throne of David, once so regal and proud—was reduced to a tiny community still under the thumb of a powerful empire. And what was left of that community was divided, unable to choose a single way forward. Aspects of the past were, they learned, unrecoverable, irreplaceable. And their hearts were broken.
These are the people Isaiah is speaking to. And I think this heartbreak, this sense that the world has changed and we are somehow lost in the debris is something that characterized 2011 for many people. The economy continued to show only the most marginal improvement. Unemployment is at its lowest level in three years, but 25 million Americans are still out of work. At the national level our elected leaders seemed consistently to place personal and political gain above the common good. We ended two wars that were a source of controversy for nearly ten years, and which cost Iraq and Afghanistan hundreds of thousands of lives, and the US thousands. Those same wars added to our economic fragility. And, on a local level, we suffered another historic flood. 2011, even in broad strokes, was not an easy year, or a buoyant one. Many of us are left with a sense of displacement, a kind of exile-in-place.
And still, the words of Isaiah speak to us, just as they spoke to the ancient community of exiled and relocated Jews.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 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. ~Isaiah 60:1-2
For post-exile Jews, this passage was a reiteration of the same promise God had been making since he’d plucked Abraham and Sarah out of their retirement community and put them on the road: I will bless you. Which translates, roughly, to I will be with you.
Which, of course, is the story behind Christmas to begin with: God pledging, “I will be with you.” A colleague from Maine tells this story: It is a long, long time ago in human terms—perhaps two thousand years ago—and God is sitting around, being God...and feeling that queasy, end-of the millennium feeling—you know the one, where, the morning after, you wonder if the whole last millennium was wasted, where you wonder to yourself, “what do I have to show for all that time? Was it worth it? Am I proud of it? Would I do it again?”
God looks around for something to write on—some sort of cosmic papyrus and a good, sharp stylus—and sighs. It's tiresome, these endless cycles of night and day, this running the universe all alone...and just look at the state of Creation, there, with all those people killing each other, as if THEY're little godlets, pretending they have the right to snuff out the divine spark of another's created life. It pushes the edges of belief. It doesn't make any sense.
Hmmm. Maybe that's the trouble. It doesn't make SENSE. You can shape a person out of cosmic dust, breathe the spirit of life into them, watch them move and act and learn, even hear their thoughts, but there's something about the human experience that their Creator has never known: embodiment, the scraped knees and bruised hearts, the ticklish toes and loving caresses, the anxious sweat, the throat-cooling rush of a good drink, the satisfying ache of honest exhaustion that comes after hard physical work... God cannot inhabit the limited bodies, the physical senses of these remarkable, loveable, wondrous and maddening creatures.
God unfurls a scroll, takes hold of the stylus, and begins to write:
1.) Spend... more... time... with... my... family...”[iii]
What dawns on us, at this time of year, more than any other, is just that: We rise up, we shine, our houses and our sanctuaries and our faces and our hearts, because God has kept that New Year’s resolution. The light of God has dawned in Jesus, God’s promise of presence with God’s people from the beginning.
We all have gotten here this morning by following this light. We are all people of the exile; we are all Magi, we are all Simeon and Anna. We follow the light and we find Jesus there. Each time we act with compassion and forgiveness we are following the light. Every time we let kindness and caring inform our behavior we are following the light. Whenever we stand up for justice and fairness… when we pour into Tahrir Square by the thousands, or the State Capitol by the hundreds, certain that there is a better way to live together, we are following the light. When gratitude becomes our way of living, we are following the light.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, will not overcome it. God’s presence, God’s light is here to stay. The home of God is here, with us. As we begin a new calendar year, your resolutions (should you choose to make any) are entirely up to you. But I will offer this prayer, courtesy of a 5th century Irish monk. Perhaps it will resonate with you as you drive through your own neighborhood, looking at those houses that are still bedecked with reminders of this beautiful season:
“Be thou a bright flame before me; Be thou a guiding star above me; Be thou a smooth path below me; Be thou a kindly shepherd behind me; Today, tonight and forever.”[iv] Thanks be to God. Amen.