Sunday, January 4, 2015
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
You may not know that the first American city
with gas street lights
was our own beloved Baltimore.
The brainchild of the painter Rembrandt Peale,
who also founded Baltimore’s first art museum,
the first street lamp was lighted on February 7, 1817,
and the papers of the day tell us,
“that the effect produced
was highly gratifying to those
who had an opportunity of witnessing it,
among whom were several members
of the Legislature of the State.”
A monument to this lamp stands to this day
on the corner of North Holliday and East Baltimore Streets
(at one end of a rather notorious strip known as The Block).
No doubt one reason that witnessing
the lighting of this lamp
was highly gratifying
is because we humans are not by nature nocturnal creatures:
we have evolved in such a way that the light of day
is the environment in which we most naturally
live and move and have our being.
In Scripture and tradition, the darkness of nighttime
represents everything perilous about life,
everything outside of our control,
everything from which we pray God to protect us.
In the opening verses of the book of Genesis
God speaks the words “Let there be light”
and pushes back the chaotic darkness
in order to make a place for us.
In contrast, one of traditional names for the devil
is princeps tenebrarum—the prince of darkness.
As an old Scottish poem puts it:
“From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!”
St. Augustine imagined our final heavenly rest in God
as a Sabbath day would never be ended by night.
Night and day, darkness and light, are powerful images
of peril and salvation.
This morning we read from the book of the prophet Isaiah,
“Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem!
Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.”
God chose the Israelites, the family of Abraham,
to receive his promise of light,
to be an island of light in a world of darkness.
Yet God’s chosen people did not receive
God’s light and glory
simply to bask in its protecting glow;
rather, they were to reflect that glory
so as to themselves become a light
by which other peoples, other nations, might walk—
a light of divine goodness
that presses back the night of evil.
In our Gospel reading, Matthew uses the story of the Magi
as a way of symbolizing that God’s promise of light
has now through Christ been shared with the Gentiles,
those who are not physical descendants of Abraham;
the story of the Magi shows that people of all nations
have become, as St. Paul puts it,
“coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus
through the gospel.”
Through Jesus, the light of God s
preads deeper into the night of sin.
Today, through technology,
we have colonized the night
and turned it into day that is 24/7.
Beginning with that first gas street lamp,
we have illuminated everything.
For most of us, the night no longer holds hidden terrors:
we no longer need to huddle together
amidst the encircling gloom of nightfall,
we no longer fear the darkened path along which we stumble.
Every dark place can be made bright with a flick of a switch.
But even if our electrified, light-polluted nights
have lost their power
to symbolize all those things
that we fear,
that are beyond our control,
from which we seek protection,
this does not mean that we have vanquished
everything perilous in life,
that we have brought all things
under our control,
that we no longer need God’s protection.
The very fact that the monument
to the first street lamp in our country
is located on the edge of
one of the seedier areas of our city
reminds us that the night
of evil and violence and human degradation
remains with us regardless of our technical mastery
of light and darkness.
We see it in the news and, alas, find it in ourselves,
beyond the reach of any technological solution.
This night cannot be vanquished
with the flick of a switch.
This night can only be vanquished
by the true light,
the light that God promised to the Israelites,
the light that the Magi sought in Bethlehem,
the light that God bestows upon us
in his word and sacraments.
The light that we celebrate on this Epiphany
has been given to us,
not to be kept as a private possession
with which to keep our personal night at bay,
but as something to be joined to the light of others
so that the glory of God might saturate
the dark places of our world
and the true light of God revealed in Jesus Christ
might lead all people
to that Sabbath day that has no end.