We are nearing the end of the “bridge” season between Christmastide and Lent – the time when our readings tend to focus on life purpose, and feature the symbolism of light. Introduced on Christmas day with the prologue to John, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all”, the light shines from the star that led the Magi, in various gospel readings, and culminating in the divine light Jesus emanates at Transfiguration, about which we read on the Sunday before Lent. Earlier this week, on the feast celebrating Jesus’ dedication at Jerusalem Temple when he turned 40 days old, we read the words of old Simeon proclaiming the baby to be “the light that will lighten the Gentiles and bring glory to Israel” and some churches blessed their candles for the year in a Candlemas service. In today’s reading, we hear Jesus’ own elaboration on this analogy.
Admittedly, we Northerners do become slightly obsessed with light at this time of year, and it was partially in response to the changes in nature and agrarian activity that the church calendar gradually developed. 40 days after Christmas takes us to the half-way point between the Solstice and Equinox, by which time, we gain the first ¼ of increase in daylight due between December and June. Many of us begin to observe that this change has a clear impact on our wellbeing, despite the increase being relatively small, and the cold still very real. It’s as though we are being reassured by nature itself that, in John’s words, “darkness does not overcome the light”. Light is vital to both our minds and bodies, as plants use it to release oxygen that in turn sustains all other life. It enables our sense of sight, and we even refer to knowledge – and in some cultures, perfection – as enlightenment. Even young children instinctively grasp such associations easily. For example, last weekend I drove to the Breakaway location with my children, after the sun had set. The road through the countryside at times led us through the fields with no houses or street lights at all. Observing the utter darkness outside our car, my four-year-old remarked, “this looks like the place where we were when God hadn’t made us yet”. Yes, light is the source of life, knowledge, and clarity. Simeon’s words are spot on, and so are the ones Jesus later applied to himself, “I am the light of the world”.
What’s perhaps more surprising and challenging, is the words we hear today: “YOU are the light of the world”. Not I am – you are. It is reassuring that we don’t have to go out of our way to “become” the light; we already are. But in that case, we also have the responsibility to illuminate the world, to meet the needs and enable the learning for others. This big Paschal candle you may spot in our nave gives light to a small candle we each receive at our baptisms often at the beginning of our lives, and it will be there for us at the end, burning at our funeral. From it, every year on the night before Easter, those who gather in the darkened church also light our individual candles, tiny in comparison, but together enough to dispel the shadows. In doing so, we manifest resurrection as the “return” of the light to a dark church – but it is us who have to carry in that light: “Christ has no body on earth but yours.” (cf St Teresa de Avila). Sure, like sunlight, God’s light is always with us, regardless of whether we want to carry it. But, just as plants produce oxygen for others in the process of utilizing the light for themselves, may we also convert our faith, that helps us personally, into self-sacrificial love that might also sustain others. And the best thing about both light and love is that it is undiminished by giving. We saw this most recently at our Breakaway candlemas, when we lit each other’s candles, and each flame was never made smaller by igniting another. I wish I had already known of this analogy when I was expecting my second child and worried that his arrival would take away from my love for his older sister!
Indeed, light never grows weaker through sharing, but it may certainly be obscured, grow dim, or run out of fuel. So Jesus makes a couple of allusions to the history of his people, intended perhaps as a reminder or warning. In the phrase “A city on a hill cannot be hidden,” the word that we translate as a ‘hill’ is more properly a ‘mountain.’ This is possibly a reference to Mt Sinai, where God gave Moses the Law as the foundation for the relationship between God and people – a kind of a pedestal upon which we might place our inner light for support and display. Likewise, the “lit lamp not put under a basket,” echoes Ps 119, where it is God’s Law that is likened to “a lamp unto my feet”. Of course, God’s “Law” is not just a system of rules, but a worldview that enables peace with self and others out of a dynamic relationship with our Creator.
What baskets cover up our lights? Pride, greed, envy, busyness, guilt? Often, it is fear. In times of war, people black out their lights to stay safe from bombing. Those of us who are burdened by the history of personal trauma, difficult experiences, or relationships that go awry, may become afraid to uncover memories, feelings, and even aspects of psyche and personality, and in the process, extinguish the parts of ourselves that should and in fact would gladly shine for self and others, if they were only set free by love, acceptance, and self-knowledge. We fear all the types of the “unknown” both within us and outside us, just as kids often fear darkness, especially if they have to face it alone. As such, the ignorance of God leads us to fear religion; the misunderstanding of self – to shame, and of another – to loneliness and hate; and the lack of life’s purpose – to fear death. Light vs. darkness. Enlightenment vs. fear. May we help each other to uncover and rekindle our innermost lights with self-giving, patience, and God’s help. Amen.
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