Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
15 January 2017
“Jesus Christ is the light of the world.” (Collect of the Day)
A week ago yesterday, I gave the homily at the funeral of my mother-in-law, Barbara Cavarra. She was a person who craved sunlight, and hated the darkness of winter, so it was ironic (and perhaps even poetic) that she died on the Winter Solstice just as dawn was breaking, ending the longest night of the year.
I closed the homily by observing that even now, the days are already beginning to grow longer (even if imperceptibly), and that fact might remind us of the broader perspective that in death Barbara has gone toward that heavenly light that ultimately lies beyond our knowing. And light is, I said, the only real metaphor we have for God, which is why in this Epiphany season we turn again and again to it—like I did in that homily—looking for a way to express who this Jesus is whose birth we celebrated at Christmas.
Light is the one true metaphor for Christ for a variety of reasons. The warmth and light of the sun, for instance, shines equally on us all, as does his love. The sun’s intensity also has nothing to do with our own effort, but is entirely outside our control or doing. Its luminosity allows us to see and function where otherwise there would only be darkness and confusion. Its energy supports growth and provides sustenance. In short, without it there would not—could not—be life, not unlike the way in which our souls rely on the divine love made known to us in Christ for their animation and continuation.
There is a beautiful Pre-Raphaelite painting that hangs in a side room of the chapel at Keble College, Oxford by William Holman Hunt (perhaps you know it). Entitled “The Light of the World,” it has an uncanny power to get at the meaning of this symbolism of light. The painting is of Christ in a garden, just at dawn, carrying a lighted lantern. He stands outside a cottage door, which is closed against him, as he prepares to knock upon it. Curiously, the door has no handle, so it can only be opened from within.
The implication is clear: Christ brings with him not only the illuminating light of the lantern, but the cosmic dawn itself. He is life, or as the Prologue to John’s gospel puts it, “the true light that enlightens every person, coming into the world.”
Yet for the soul closed in upon itself, like the cottage shut to the outside, his revelatory knock can only bring light into its dark recesses if the soul first takes the initiative to open the door to him. And this becomes the essential question of this Epiphany season for us: how do we open the door of our lives to this new light that has come into the world?
Yet we have many reasons and means for keeping the door closed.
One is anger. We have heard a lot about anger in recent months. Anger in the streets. Anger at the ballot box. Anger at one another. Even so, we should know that anger is never a fruitful place from which to try to act reasonably or make decisions. Paul warns as much in Ephesians, when he admonishes us never “to let the sun go down on our anger” (Eph 4:26-27), lest the devil gain a foothold. Against Christ’s invitation to be people of the light, anger keeps the door closed, extending the darkness which comes with it.
A sense of privilege and entitlement is another means we have of keeping the door closed. I know of no other human attitude that more effectively shuts the door to light and love than such a sensibility. For some people, it’s a matter of social and economic class. For others, it’s where they went to school. For others, its’ where they were born and therefore hold citizenship. But when we are self-satisfied with who we already are, we have no motivation or inclination to open the door to something, or someone, new.
Which leads us to self-righteousness. Who was it, who said that the truest thing that can be said about people of any sort, is that “All of us are much more human than otherwise”? [Harry Stack Sullivan] It takes a big dose of realism and humility to see ourselves in the face of those whom we most despise, to open the door of experience to theirs, but the truth of the matter is, we are more like even them than we are not.
Anger, privilege, self-righteousness. These are three clever and cunning ways we human beings have of trying to keep the door shut against the light of Christ.
But as this Epiphany season moves toward its culmination on the Sunday before Lent, when we will hear of Jesus’ Transfiguration—how he himself is caught up in a heavenly light and energy—we might ponder even now the meaning of that enigmatic event. It is as if, in his humanity, Jesus will in that moment be turned inside out, and the light of the divine love which is at the core of his life will overtake everything else that he is. He becomes “the dwelling of the light” (to quote the voice out of the whirlwind that speaks to Job [38:19]), and is shown to be “the gateway to an endless journey into God’s love” (as Rowan Williams put it in his study of icons of Christ [The Dwelling in the Light, p. 5]).
Which takes us back to that door in Hunt’s painting, shut against Jesus. Hunt explained that his work is based on a verse in the book of Revelation [3:20], which reads, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with me.” The knocking, then, is both a request and an invitation: a request to open the door, but also an invitation to sit down at table with the one whose very being is light and love.
You may have heard that our beloved fellow parishioner, Pepper Marts, died this week. Pepper had an extraordinary facility for understanding the meaning of the language of worship, and he often supplied us with emendations to our liturgy to make that meaning clearer. Among his most insightful observations was that the sense of the words “Do this in remembrance of me,” which we recite over the bread and wine at every celebration of the Eucharist, might best be rendered as “Whenever you do this, I will be at table with you.”
Christ, the light of the world, offers to be at table with us, to share our lives, to offer the warmth of fellowship and the intimacy of discourse that comes from the simple act of sharing a meal. So having opened the door to his presence here in this church, we will soon take up his invitation to be at table with him. And that is no small thing, for in doing so, we will do nothing less than make our witness against that anger, privilege, and self-righteousness which we have seen holding the door tightly shut not only against him, but against one another as well. Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016