26th January, 3rd Sunday of Epiphany
As a child I always encountered Christmas in three phases. First came Anticipation and Expectation; then Christmas itself; and finally, The New Year with its resolutions and new beginnings.
As a child, anticipation ran high. Approaching Christmas the atmosphere was fragrant with baking and sweetmaking… the promise of good times. I anticipated the stash of storybooks I knew I would get as gifts. As an only child, I was excited by the arrival of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, the latter dispensing benevolence, indulging the grandchildren and shelving disciplinary action. Midnight on Christmas Eve was the high point. We exchanged gifts and greetings, and ate Christmas cake. I took my new books to bed with me and drifted off to sleep sniffing the scent of newness, anticipating hours of reading.
The Christmas spirit lingered on till New Year when we made resolutions. But New Year soon felt Old as the Christmas tree, decorations, and festive atmosphere were dismantled. I had read my story books and school loomed. Homework was due. It was a New Year but it didn’t feel new. Early mornings, school buses, strict discipline. “Do your homework!” “Stop reading that book!” Resolutions were broken.
Today’s three readings show a similar sequence. Anticipation and expectation in Isaiah, as the Jews await the new dawn: God’s Light which would break into their darkness. Then, in Matthew, comes the high point and the fulfilment – the Light of the World, foretold by Isaiah, had finally come. Christ was walking among men, calling people to follow him and build His Kingdom. Finally, God’s people – the Church. But, in Corinth, the new beginnings were going wrong. Despite the joy at Christ’s resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Church was struggling with human sin.
Leading up to Christmas, Paul – our rector – led a series of Bible Studies on Advent. It was the first time I realised the significance and deep meaning of the Advent season. We reflected on darkness and the shadow of death, on waiting in hope and expectation. And we anticipated the coming of the Light of the World – Christ.
Isaiah talks of the coming of the Light to those in darkness. I love the exultation and hope of Isaiah 9. The Gospel of Matthew uses these same words to point to Christ: “Those who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the land of the shadow of death, light has dawned”. Luke echoes this as he tells us that “the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace”. The Gospel writers recognised Christ as the Light of God dawning on the darkness of our world; both the darkness within society and the darkness within each of us. For humanity, living in the shadow of physical and spiritual death, Light shines. There is hope, even at the darkest times of our lives, because Christ is the Light of the World. As the Psalmist says “The Lord is my Light and my salvation, whom shall I fear; The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?”
But to appreciate the metaphor of Light, we need to understand darkness – and we have almost forgotten what it means. Today, most of us live in a world of eternal brightness. We are illuminated at the press of a switch, the swipe of a screen, the touch of a button – even automatically as we approach a doorway or open a fridge. For some of us, nights and days are blurred as we sleep during the day and stay awake or work in brightly lit nights. We only experience darkness when we sleep – if then. And darkness is a choice. But a few centuries ago (and today, in some parts of the world), darkness was very, very different. Darkness ruled the night. Candles and torches shed fitful, tiny pools of light in the all-enveloping blackness, or the fleeting grey moonlight. To appreciate the power of the metaphor, we must appreciate the potency of a moonless, unlit night.
One period in my life helped me understand the connection between night, darkness, fear and death. During the ethnic riots in Sri Lanka, darkness brought terror. We took turns to stay awake at night. I remember creeping into a dark room and peering out into the darkness (the lights outside had already been destroyed by a passing mob). Darkness was an inky black blanket, cradling fear and terror. You couldn’t tell if a crowd was gathering to attack the house. Our hearts pounded at every sound – every rustle of a leaf was fear. You instinctively connected darkness with evil. The shadow of death hung like a pall over some homes. During these times we waited and longed for the dawn to break. For the fear to dissipate. For daylight and the feeling of relative safety.
The people in both Isaiah’s day, and in the time of Christ, lived in times when darkness was associated with terror or even death. They understood the meaning of breaking dawn. The passage in Isaiah evokes exultation, for Light, when it burst in on such darkness, was a joy! But Isaiah paints other pictures of this Joy – it is like the rejoicing at Harvest time. Harvest is another thing we don’t appreciate today. We buy whatever food we want, from anywhere in the world, at any season. But in the Old Testament, and in agrarian communities today, Harvest provides supplies for the whole year. It is a time of joy because it is an assurance of survival – survival until next Harvest. In Ireland, in the time of the Potato famine, the Harvest failed, and millions died or emigrated. It is in that context that we must understand the joy of Harvest.
Matthews’ Jewish audience understood these images. When Matthew declared that Christ was the Light breaking into the world, they would have remembered what Isaiah said next. Isaiah 9 continues with the words we hear every Christmas… “For unto us a child is born…unto us a Son is given…he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” and he will establish his Kingdom with “justice and righteousness forever”.
Matthew then declares: “Jesus begins to preach ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.’” Matthew is making two fundamental claims here:
- That Christ is the Light that the Prophet Isaiah celebrates, and
- That Christ is this Ruler, whose Kingdom of justice and righteousness will have no end.
Having declared who Christ is, Matthew explains the beginning of Christ’s ministry as he calls disciples to follow him and to become “fishers of people.” Matthew concludes Chapter 4 with a summary of what Christ was doing as he brought in the Kingdom of God – teaching, proclaiming news of the Kingdom, and healing. And immediately after that, Matthew describes the Sermon on the Mount – the Magna Carta of the Kingdom of God – how we are called to live as Kingdom people.
The letter to the Corinthians takes us forward to the early church. Jesus had established the Kingdom of God on Earth, and left the Church to continue building His Kingdom.
But the tone of this passage is quite different. The Church had forgotten its purpose. “Already?” we might well ask, shocked. The disconnect between the principles of God’s Kingdom, and the reality of how it was being lived then (and now) reminds me of a few lines from T S Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men”:
“Between the idea and the Reality,
Between the Motion and the Act,
Falls the shadow.
Between the conception and the Creation,
Between the emotion and the response,
Falls the shadow.”
Our human frailty and sin always casts a shadow, even on the greatest dreams. The church in Corinth was already showing signs of its human weakness. They had forgotten Christ’s command to be the Light of the World, a city on a hilltop, shining light into the darkness. The church was disunited. The believers were quarrelling over control, power and prestige – forming factions. Paul, Apollo, Cephas, Christ.
The Apostle Paul’s tone is scathing: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” he asks. He tells them that God’s Kingdom is not about the power struggles that you find in the world. For the world, the Cross represents death and failure, but to us who believe, the Cross, the Risen Christ is the power of God. The Cross and Resurrection of Christ dispels the shadow of death and the darkness of our lives. It brings forgiveness for our guilt, evil and sin. It brings new life out of our failures. It is the Power of God.
Paul reminds the Corinthians of their calling. Our calling as followers of Christ. The visible body of Christ – the church – exists to bring the good news about power of God in Christ and build His kingdom. To be Light to the nations.
Let me leave you with three thoughts:
- Christ is the Light that breaks into the Darkness of our lives, and our world.
- We are called to be Christ’s disciples
- We are Christ’s body – the Church – called to build His Kingdom and to take the Good News of the Risen Lord to our world.
May God give us the humility to recognise our darkness and experience His Light.
May he give us courage to follow him as His disciples.
May He give us the grace to be His body – the Light of the world as we build His Kingdom and offer the transforming and restoring love of Christ to the world today.