Tag: Light

Living in the Light – A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4A (Ephesians 5)

Ephesians 5:8-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore, it says,
“Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

***********

                As we continue our Lenten journey our world is being turned upside down by a major viral pandemic. Schools, libraries, restaurants, and congregations are shutting down. Store shelves are empty of everything from bread to toilet paper. People are starting to hunker down because they don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Fear is rampant. Even for people of faith, times like this can be daunting. We can hold on to the promise that there is no fear in love, but when dark cloud hovers over us, blocking out the sunlight, hope may seem fleeting. You might even say that things are looking somewhat apocalyptic.

 

                Into this moment of darkness, we hear this word from Ephesians 5. It reflects a certain dualism separating darkness from light. In this case, it’s not just that we might live in darkness, but we are darkness. On the other hand, it’s possible that we not only live in the light, but we are light. Yes, “once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light” (Eph. 5:8a).

 

                When I read this passage, I can’t help but view it through a Star Wars lens. I am, after all, a Star Wars fan, going back to my college days when I took in the very first episode (Episode IV). For those who know the Star Wars story, the Force is an energy field that has a dark side and a light side. The dark side is quite powerful and therefore it’s enticing. The dark side of the Force feeds off of fear and anger, which are emotions easily ignited, especially when we feel threatened. I doubt George Lucas was reading Ephesians 5 when he developed the Star Wars saga, but it seems to fit. While Darth Vader (otherwise known as Anakin Skywalker) was once a brave and powerful Jedi Knight, he was seduced by the dark side of the force and became darkness itself. It made him very powerful, but it transformed him into something quite evil. The word we hear in Ephesians 5 is that we were once possessed by darkness, but that’s no longer true. As happened in Episode VI, The Return of the Jedi, Vader had a conversion of sorts and returned to the light.

 

                What we have here in this passage is a conversion text. It speaks of a radical transformation, much like that experienced by Vader. In this experience of transformation from darkness to light, the old self is exchanged for the new. While the question of authorship of Ephesians remains open (see my study guide on the Book of Ephesians for more on that question), there are similarities to this message and what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5. There Paul speaks of becoming a new creation so that the old is now gone, and a new creation comes into existence. The message here is that because of this conversion from darkness to light, one should live accordingly. If we’re to live in the light, this means stepping away from the old life and embracing a new way of living. The word here is: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11).

This call to separate oneself from the works of darkness, but rather expose them, is a call to action. Stand up for justice, for what is good and right. But also remember that darkness is powerful. We might want to heed this word of warning from Reinhold Niebuhr: “It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves.” [Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition].

 

                Niebuhr’s warning about the power of self-interest is apropos at this moment. We should not underestimate its power over our lives as we face the challenges of the moment. At this moment the challenge comes in the form of a world-wide Coronavirus pandemic. How do we care for ourselves, but not put others in danger? We’ve watched as people hoard goods and prices for necessary goods skyrocket. When it comes to health care, who will be considered expendable if the resources need to be rationed? Too often we think about things in abstract terms, but this is reality. What is light and what is darkness? How does self-interest work its way into the conversation?

 As we ponder this question of moving from darkness into light, hearing the call to live as children of light, exposing the deeds of darkness, what is our responsibility? How do we speak truth without exploiting fear? We know it will occur politically. This is, after all, a political season. But, what about faith? It’s easy to exploit fear for religious gain. People are looking for hope amid news that only brings despair. How do we offer hope without manipulating these fears? Times like this can bring out both the worst and the best in us.

Since this is the season of Lent, when confession of sin becomes a significant part of our experience, even in communities (like my own) that generally eschew prayers of confession, we have the opportunity to allow light to be shined into our lives. The darkness that is present will be exposed. Turning back to Star Wars, when Vader became once again Anakin, his son, Luke, said of him, “I knew there was still goodness in you.” There is a view of things that suggests that we are totally depraved, and without any hope outside the grace of God. I wonder, could it be that the image of God, in which we are created, might be clouded over by darkness, but never completely erased? This reading from Ephesians doesn’t answer that question, but I wonder. Might there still be a fragment of light present that can be set free in Christ, so that we might act as light, ever mindful that even as Children of Light there is still the possibility of falling back into darkness?

            The reading closes with this declaration that might be part of an early Christian hymn:

                “Sleeper, awake!
                                Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

May the light that is Christ sine on us, and through us, so that life might be fully embraced. Yes:

                Come, heav’nly brightness, light divine,
and deep within our hearts now shine;
                There light a flame undying!  (O Morning Star, Chalice Hymnal, 105, vs. 2)
               

Image attribution: Hartman, Craig W.. Cathedral of Christ the Light, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54202 [retrieved March 16, 2020]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sicarr/3251258111/.

Gathered at the Light

Adoration of the Magi – by Joos van der Beke van Cleve (Detroit Institute of Art) 
Isaiah 60:1-6 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
60 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.
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,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
*****************
                It is the Day of Epiphany. The journey of Christmas, which began with the promise of the coming of Emmanuel, is coming to a close. We have witnessed the birth of the child born in Bethlehem of Judea (Luke 2), and now we celebrate the light that shines in the darkness, guiding the nations to the child who reveals the light of God to the world. Yes, it is time to celebrate the truth that God has been manifest to us in the person of Jesus. Even when darkness seems to be closing in, “the star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light” (John H. Hopkins, 1857).
Epiphany, as a liturgical event, is connected to the visit of the magi (wisemen) to the holy family, who in Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus are living in Bethlehem. We celebrate this story in the John H. Hopkins famous hymn “We Three Kings,” which tells the story of kings bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each holds great value and is fit for royalty, but they are brought to a child living not in a palace but in some non-descript home in the village of Bethlehem. In our Christmas pageants and creche scenes, the three kings or magi (as they are named in the Gospel of Matthew), appear at the manger along with shepherds and angels. It’s an easy merger of the stories, but Matthew’s version of the infancy story is rather different from that of Luke. Even Matthew doesn’t give us the number of magi, only the description of the gifts. But historical accuracy isn’t the point.
In Matthew’s telling of the birth story, the Holy Family is living in Bethlehem. It seems as if this is their hometown. Matthew knows nothing a census that draws the family from Nazareth in the north. They’re just there, when the magi (astrologers) show up in the neighborhood, having seen a star in the sky that they interpret as a sign that a new king of the Jews has been born. These Gentile seers go first to Herod, hoping he can give them some further guidance, and Herod learns that the promised messiah is to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 2:2-5). When Herod learns from his advisors the messianic prophesy, he sends them on their way, asking that they report back so he too can give homage to the new born king. Of course, after they follow the star to the home of the Holy Family and offer their gifts, they are warned to go home without reporting to Herod. For his part, Herod is infuriated, and orders his troops to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem, making sure that this rival is cut down before he can prove to be trouble. Fortunately, for the Holy Family, but not the other families in Bethlehem, they are warned to flee to Egypt as political refugees, which they do (reversing the Exodus story). That is the Epiphany story in a nutshell (Matthew 2:1-18).
Standing behind this story of the magisterial visit to the home of the Christ child is this vision from Isaiah. In what is most likely a post-exilic message, perhaps coming from the time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the prophet pictures the glory of the Lord rising and shining into a world that had experienced deep darkness. We see that darkness described in the previous chapter (Isaiah 59), where injustice seems rampant, and the people grope in the darkness, seeking a way forward, and that reality is reaffirmed in verse 2 of chapter 60. That is the context in which the prophet offers a word of hope. In verse three we’re told that the Lord will rise in the midst of the people, revealing God’s glory. Yes, the light that is God breaks through the darkness, as the “glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” The people may have lived in darkness, but God is now present, and with God comes the light that overcomes the darkness. Not only does this light shine into the darkness, but the nations are drawn to it, making their way to the source of light, even as the magi were drawn to the home of Jesus, guided by the star in the sky. 
 
If we’re to see this light, we’ll have to lift up our eyes and look around. That’s not easy when our eyes are attuned to the darkness, having groped around in that darkness. It takes some time and discipline to focus our attention on the light, having become accustomed to the darkness. The light, however, is good. It disperses darkness and reveals God’s vision of hope and healing for Israel and the world. It’s a message of hope and healing. Consider that sons and daughters will return home, perhaps ending the brokenness that existed in the community. For Judah, which had suffered exile, this promise of return is powerful and healing. With them come the nations, bearing gifts, so as to acknowledge the healing presence of God. The gifts, interestingly, include gold and frankincense, even as they come to give praise to God. You can see the connection here between Isaiah and Matthew.
As we contemplate this vision of Isaiah, we might ask what kind of light is shining into the darkness? Is it a powerful bank of lights that blinds us once turned on? Or is it subtler? David Schlafer, suggests that this light is on the subtle side, being “like the imperceptible dawning of the morning sun, like the slowly building brightness of a kindled fire.” He goes on: “As in other poetic oracles (see the text for Christmas Eve, Isa. 9:2-7), the reiteration in cadence of complementary images of darkness and light underscores the felt sense of God’s light rising slowly, imperceptibly, rather than in a burst of clarity coming all at once” (Connections, p. 146). It’s bright enough to be seen by the nations, but not so bright that it overwhelms. It requires, as in the story of the magi, an ability to discern the meaning of the light.
So what is the message of Epiphany for us? The Day of Epiphany rarely falls on a Sunday, and so only the most liturgically oriented traditions, which might meet on a day other than Sunday, will normally celebrate the event. Growing up in the Episcopal Church, we held a service called the Feast of Lights, which included a post-service party that featured a cake (which may be why I remember it). In 2019, the calendar allows for the churches to once again observe this holy day in its full glory, celebrating together the word that God’s presence has become fully manifest in the person of Jesus. The story of the magi is often seen as a sign that the gospel will extend to the nations, to the Gentiles, as well as Jews. Isaiah speaks here of the light drawing to itself the nations, the Gentiles, so that all might experience God’s presence. The nations even come bearing gifts.
As we celebrate this festival, affirming the message that God’s presence is fully manifested in Jesus, whom Matthew pictures being born in Bethlehem, and to whom the nations gather bearing gifts, what forms of darkness do we confront? What is the darkness of our times into which this light from God shines? What does it reveal about our lives, our world, and God’s vision for us?  To name one, it might be the ongoing presence of racism in our culture, which influences so much of our social context and issues. As light shines into this reality, might we begin to see things differently? Might we even see ourselves differently. We can add to this list, of course. As we do, may we find hope for the present and the future in the light of God that shines into our darkness, drawing us to it, so that we might find a pathway forward into God’s new reality. In Isaiah’s vision the people will be blessed by material benefits, a sharing of resources, both exotic and basic, even camels. In other words, it’s time for a party!

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.