Light By Sharlene McGowan (January 6, 2019)
Well, it’s now 2019 and the excitement is already building for the most thrilling event that will happen this year. This event will take the world by storm and inspire conversations by workplace water coolers for months. There will be more to discuss between friends and family dinner tables will be filled with diverse opinions. The media and social networks will be saturated with eagerness and anticipation. People all over the world from different generations will form a queue and wait patiently in line for their chance to witness this event. Of course, I am talking about the release of the Downton Abbey movie! Oh, imagine seeing even more drama with Lady Mary and Lady Edith and all of the other characters both upstairs and down. Imagine seeing more of Highclere Castle and taking in the incredible styles of the gorgeous dresses worn by the upper class ladies.
I suppose as a way to pave the way towards the New Year, PBS played re-runs of the original Downtown Abbey series between Christmas and New Year’s. As I watched, and one cannot help but watch despite the number of times one has already seen the series, I was struck by how much of the time Lady Mary Crawley’s face is only half-lit in the first episodes: One side of her face is in light while the other side is in darkness. I suppose that is a trick that cinematographers use to represent a character who is both good and yet may have some ominous intentions. Cinematographers know lighting well and use it to sway the audience’s minds one way or the other. For example, MGM studios used high-key lighting for practically the entire 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz; at the time, high-key lighting represented cheerful and wholesome entertainment. Compare this technique to a movie such as All the President’s Men which used the absence of light, particularly in the shadows of the figure in the parkade, to represent something sinister.
The symbolism of light is used widely in art and literature, too. Imagine a young man who is in love with a young woman so much he says this about her:
“The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars, as daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven would through the airy region stream so bright that birds would sing and think it were not night.” Of course, that was Romeo as he gazed upon the beauty of Juliet.
Our Hebrew scripture which was read this morning, from the prophet Isaiah chapter 60, likewise uses light symbolically. Light is used to represent the glory of God and God’s promise of favour upon humankind.
This section of the book of Isaiah is situated in the sixth century BCE, roughly 700 years before the birth of Christ, as those who were exiled returned to Jerusalem. Just as Jerusalem is divided now, it was divided then, too: Tensions had arisen between those who left Jerusalem and came back and those who stayed during really difficult times. The themes of sin and redemption which precede chapter 60 contrast with our reading for today and makes our section of scripture even more hopeful: The previous chapter, Isaiah chapter 59, says that humankind has fallen so far in sin that God has hidden his face. The people have innocent blood on their hands, have spoken wicked things, and have no appetite for justice. Isaiah 59 says, “We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows…At mid-day we stumble as if it were twilight.” But it ends with a promise: God promises that the redeemer will come and to those who repent He will keep his covenant. Then our scripture passage, chapter 60, starts with, “Arise, shine, for your light has come…” It is a revelation that, even though darkness covers the earth, the Almighty will bring the nations towards the light of salvation.
The term “the glory of the Lord” in the Hebrew scriptures always represents God’s presence. The glory of the Lord appeared to Abraham. The glory of God appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai. The glory of the Lord appeared in the wilderness when the exiled people complained about the lack of food and God provided manna. Last week Rev. Cam spoke about the glory of God, God’s presence, as perceived by the faithful through the Arc of the Covenant. Psalm 19 says, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God.” Jesus spoke about the glory of God, also. It is recorded in John 11 that Jesus, in convincing Martha that Lazarus was raised from the dead, said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” And our scripture for today, Isaiah 60, starts by saying, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” Through God’s glory, His presence, He is not a far-away phenomenon but rather He lives among us and within us.
Now, consider also a lesson which we also learned from Rev. Cam’s sermon last week: We must see the New Testament through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures. We must pay careful attention to the connection to the New Testament as we consider passages which were penned centuries before the birth of Christ. Isaiah chapter 60 sees a transformed Jerusalem, a city filled with both glory and light and God’s favour. Tremendous spiritual riches would be poured onto the faithful. Isaiah foretold that people will come from afar bringing gold and incense which was a prophetic foreshadowing of the birth of Christ and the Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ through the Magi. The light through the star was so bright in the sky after the birth of Jesus that, as foretold in Isaiah, even the kings of the earth were drawn to its radiance. And the darkness of the world would be driven out by the light of Jesus Christ, a light which brings us purpose and hope and draws us together as a community of faith. Jesus said in John 8, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” and again in John 12, “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”
Light is used symbolically throughout the entire New Testament to represent the life and ministry of Jesus and those who are faithful. There are dozens of scriptures which unite light with faith and moves us to both walk in the light and be the light for others. Matthew 5 says, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
This does not mean that we won’t have pain in our lives because we will have pain. We have pain, fear, grief, and sometimes even trauma. But it’s our intentional pursuit of joy which makes our light shine despite our challenges. The light which we both receive and give within a community of believers comes from our faith, rooted in our Saviour, who said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness.” (John 8:12)
Light is important to us, particularly this time of year when it appears to be in rather short supply much of the time. We are aware of its importance to our moods and its symbolic use in our faith and in the world all around us. When we do not have it, we seek it. Once having it, we don’t want to let it go. When we see light represented in literature and entertainment, our inclination is to attach meaning to that representation. We feel in harmony when we see light and we feel uncomfortable in darkness. The prophet Isaiah teaches us that the promise of God was fulfilled through the coming of the light, Jesus Christ, and that the spirit of light is upon us.
Now, if one were to count the days between December 25 and January 6, you would find that today is the twelfth day of Christmas. For about fifteen hundred years, today has therefore been known as the feast of Epiphany; it is the day during which Christians mark the manifestation of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the eternal light of the world. It is a reason to keep celebrating the joyous birth of our Saviour and a reason to be in endless anticipation of what the year has in store: For in life, in death, and in life beyond death, we are in perpetual light and radiance by the presence of the One in whose glory we proclaim. Amen.