Happy 12th Day of Christmas! You may be so over Christmas by now that it seems weird to see decorations and to sing carols one last time, but for many parts of the Christian world, this is one of the biggest celebrations of the year. It kicks off the season after Epiphany when the light that came to birth in Bethlehem grows and shines in far off places as God’s mercy and justice spread throughout the nations. Some of the major feasts of the church year will happen during this season including the baptism of Jesus, when new Christians are baptized and others renew their vows. The light of Christ will glow at Jesus is transfigured on a mountain top and will spread as his first disciples are commissioned to go forth and share the good news.
Many of you weren’t at St. Luke’s on Christmas Eve as we gathered in the historic chapel to hear the Christmas story and sing our favorite carols. The first reading that evening was from an earlier part of Isaiah, chapter 9. It begins “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” In the middle of a dark, cold December night in Ballard, each of us held our handmade beeswax candles, made from our own bee hives and passed the light of Christ from person to person as we sang “Silent night, Holy Night.” The sanctuary glowed and that beautiful light was reflected on the faces of the diverse crowd who gathered from all over the neighborhood, the country and even the world to acknowledge and worship the Christ child.
And now it’s Epiphany, twelve days since Christmas and in the Gospel story at least a couple years after the birth of Jesus. The reading from the 60th chapter of Isaiah sounds a slightly different note. It begins with a command, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The story has moved from the straw, piss and manure of the stable to the palaces of power in Jerusalem and a humble house in Bethlehem. The light from the star has drawn some of the most unique and unusual figures in the Gospel, the wise ones, the Magi from the East. They are the foreign others to whom God gives the sign of the star and through whom the true nature of the Christ child is revealed.
Jesus has barely learned to speak and his life is already on the line with the powerful and the entitled. Herod and the leaders in Jerusalem, just 9 miles down the road are shocked, afraid and concerned to hear through the Magi that a radically different king may be on the horizon. They plot to use these learned, curious, open foreigners to find the child so that they can destroy him. Even the hint of a threat to their power terrifies them and leads them to manipulation, falsehood and ultimately destruction as Herod orders the death of all male children under the age of two – the slaughter of the holy innocents. Mary and Joseph don’t get to linger in the glow of the candlelight. They are propelled as refugees, fleeing for their lives to a foreign country.
Those moments of peace, comfort and joy at the birth with the angels and shepherds seem to pass so quickly under the cruel reality of a world of inequality, war, disaster and dysfunction. Already in these days after our Christmas we have a government shutdown, more suffering on the streets of our city and the death of two of our beloved, long-time St. Luke’s members. The lights we kindled on Christmas Eve that were so full of hope and beauty now seem small in retrospect. The daily grind, the damp weather, the disappointments and depression of life all take their toll.
Yet, the light still shines. When you leaned into your neighbor to pass the light from your small candle to theirs, something amazing happened that changes everything. Light is doubled. Not only does your own candle not lose anything by sharing the light, but now there is a second flame. And then another and another. This light from the heart of God came into the world, not in power or riches or might but in our very frail humanity. This light of love was subjected to every force of evil and to death itself, but was never extinguished. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
And so the prophet can urge us on in these difficult times. “Arise, shine.” Let your light shine. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. There’s truth and power in that simple song. It’s a song of a people whose light cannot be extinguished. It’s a song of hope and protest in the midst of overwhelming opposition. It’s a song that has been sung in prison and on marches. It’s the song they sung in Charlottesville when white supremacists tried to intimidate the clergy and supporters who held the line. It’s a song to rouse a people who know that good and truth and life and light cannot be overcome by hate, evil and lies. It’s a civil rights song. It’s a gospel song. It’s a song of hope.
My husband Bryon and I take an annual Christmas recovery trip to Vancouver BC where we try to watch as many movies as possible while we can. We choose those that are getting some buzz about possible awards. So we watched Green Book last week. I’m grateful for the film because it introduced me to an extraordinary person, Dr. Don Shirley. He was a musical genius and forged his own genre and interpretation when, because he was a black man in the twentieth century, he couldn’t make a living as a classical pianist.
Dr. Shirley was one of 4 sons of an Episcopal priest. All of his brothers also have doctorates. They accomplished this despite the fact that their mother died when they were young. Dr. Shirley had a long career touring and recording. One of his last recordings was his interpretation of the songs that fed and nurtured his soul. He titled the album, Home. He chose to include “This little light of mine,” which he described as a spiritual not for black people or white people but for all humanity. He was determined to shine in spite of how a world of white power tried to box him in and diminish his gifts and his unique being.
Sharing your flame does not diminish it. In fact, it’s just the opposite. As you let your light shine, you inspire others. You join the great chorus that sings the dream of God into reality. Our lights have been kindled by those who have gone before us, including now our dear Patty and Daphne who each possessed a particular radiance. They have passed the flame of Christ’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit to this generation so that we might shine as well.
And at that great day, when the powers of domination and the evils of discrimination, poverty and inequality are snuffed out and destroyed, what will remain is God’s community of peace and justice. It will be revealed to be stronger and more lasting than any oppressive, unjust or self-serving rule or rulers. The beloved community of God outlasts the evil empire.
It’s a new year. It’s the season of Epiphany. Let your light shine! Amen.