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From Generation to Generation

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Jan 05

The Second Sunday of Christmas

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6 and John 1: 1-1

I wonder how many of you were around in December when we gathered after church for our Christmas party in our Margaret Jewett Hall, all decked out with boughs of greens Christmas lights hanging all around. We sang a rousing version of the 12 Days of Christmas Each round table or 8 or 10 people had an appointed verse and rose to sing it when their day came ‘round! Well, in case you lost tracked after the big first day of the season, today just so happens to be the 11th Day of Christmas.  11 pipers piping, whatever that means (and even Google couldn’t give me an a worthwhile answer to that question!).  Indeed, it is still the Christmas season.  Our tree and perhaps yours at home is still be up to ride it out to the fullest.  Today is not only the 11th day of Christmas on the liturgical calendar, but its also the day, indeed the Eve of another festival, that far lesser known cousin to Christmas called Epiphany.   When you trace its roots, epiphany literally means “manifestation”, or “revelation”, or even “new understanding.”

Evelyn Underhill, an Anglo Catholic writer known for her works on Christian mysticism puts the connection between the two in this way:  “The Christmas mystery has two parts: the nativity and epiphany.  A deep instinct made the Church separate these two feasts.  In the first we commemorate God’s humble entrance into human life, the emergence and birth of the holy. And in the second its manifestation to the world, the revelation of the supernatural made in that ife.  And the two phases concern our inner lives very closely too.   The first only happens in order that the second may happen, and the second cannot happen without the first.  Underhill goes onto say the Christ is a great Light, a light for all to behold at Christmas, but that “beholding the glory is only half our jobs.”  She says, “In our souls too the mystery must be brought forth, we are not really Christians until that is done. ‘The Eternal birth’, says Miester Eckhart, ‘must take place in you.’” 

 Our culture tells us its time to put away the lights and the gifts but our tradition tells us just the opposite!  Pull them out! Keep them out!  Let them shine like a bright, glistening snow covered morning!  Perhaps we can start by trying to shed some light on our scriptures today that so powerfully carry these themes.

First, I have to share that I came across a book title recently.  Despite my curiosity, I have yet to buy it.  The book is called “The Twibble.”   Any guesses?  Twitter plus Bible equals Twibble. The whole bible, with each and every chapter neatly condensed into 140 characters or less.  “Holy Writ with Twitter Wit,” as its been advertised.  You get the idea. The Twibble sounds like twouble to me, a recipe for doing major damage to scriptural text but if it lights up some morsels of biblical wisdom on people’s cellphones or better still if the abbreviations can ring true in people’s hearts, perhaps we shouldn’t be so skeptical.  For the sake of drawing a quick comparison, if I had to twibble today’s passages, they might sound something like this: 

From Isaiah:  Arise, shine; your light has come. God’s glory has risen upon you. So lift up your eyes. Look around. See and be radiant! Let your heart thrill and rejoice!

126 characters!  Our text from John is harder to do in 140 character so I won’t try, but the short version might be this:  The ancient Word of God came to dwell among us. His life was light for all. Witnesses who were not that light came to testify, but the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. All who received him became children of God.  Now we too can see. See his glory and be his glory, the glory as of a father's only son.

 Twibble versions or not, these two stories capture the essence of the two mysteries about which Underhill wrote: that God takes on human life and flesh, a glory to behold, but also that the story doesn’t end there, that we too receive that light and that power to be children of God ourselves!  We not only behold the glory but we receive it and are called to share it as well.

I was contemplating these themes this past week when I came across a fascinating article about how religious traditions are shared and passed on from generation to generation.  This particular batch of research didn’t necessarily buck the “narrative of decline” that many religious communities are facing these days -- that is, declining religious participation and affiliation -- but there were some bright lights of hope.  In 1970, a sociologist named Vern Bengston began what he called the “Longitudinal Study of Generations”. It was a multidisciplinary investigation of families, aging and social change, so not only about religion.  But when asked [by the Christian Century, December 25, 2013 issue] “what did you find out about how families transmit religion from generation to generation?” he said, “We found that the highest generational transmission occurs in families with a high degree of warmth – particularly if the father is perceived as warm and close.  Its not enough for parents to be role models, send their kids to church, be involved in church and have devotional activities at home.  That’s all well and good, but the key is what we call intergenerational solidarity or family cohesion. “ A high degree of warmth!  When asked what other surprises were in his data – and realized he and his team studied some 350 families across three generations over the last 50 years – he said “we were surprised by the importance of grandparents – and again, especially grandfathers.  Grandparental warmth – emotional closeness – was the highest predictor of whether the similarity or transmission (of religious practice) would exist across generations.” Imagine that, the key indicator of what makes religion stick is the warmth, and emotional closeness, presumably the expression of love shared between families, across generations and especially by dads.

This kind of data should come with a warning label lest we all start trying to psychoanalyze our own families and point fingers for better or worse, not least of which may be fingers at ourselves.  Some of you may think of me as a warm guy, but ask my kids Julian and Nellie?  My guess is it depends what day you ask them, and that’s being generous.  Anyway, these are broad strokes but fascinating nonetheless.

I couldn’t help but think of this notion of religious transmission in terms of this season of Epiphany almost upon us.  Our scriptures and tradition tell us we are passed a great light and are invited to share that light with the world, to pass it on. What’s more, according to John, the light is as that of a “father” passed onto his Son, and to each of us. At the end of our passage comes another amazing line: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.”  Close to the father’s heart.  That sounds like warmth to me! 

I realize this talk of God as father may be treading on difficult territory for some and I want to be sensitive to that, to the fact that speaking of God in paternal, or even maternal terms may conjure less than loving images depending on your experience and upbringing. But for Jesus, and for the holy family, and for us as children of God, this language may yet be powerful, especially when we consider the themes of light and warmth that this season brings. 

The question of how do we “share the light of Christ” may still sound like a heady proposition for some, but put another way, asking how we transmit the warmth of Christ, now that could be just the kind embodied manifestation and “new understanding” we need to carry us into this wintry season and through our wintry world.  Just imagine, if you will, that we are given not only a light to share a Christmas, a glory to behold, but a warmth as well, something to hold dear and kindle in our hearts and share on a cold day and in a sometimes very cold and warring world!  Consider the color temperature of this very space where we worship, how it draws us in, all the more so when its lit with candles as it will be tomorrow night at our Festival of Epiphany when we surround a darkended sanctuary holding beeswax tapers.  Consider how we bear this light and warmth, how it guides our decisions, how we reflect the love and closeness to God’s heart, to our children, but to those outside these walls.  There is an invitation to a kind of intimacy here, and deep connection, that amidst all the talk of radiant beams and holy faces and glory and the fullness of grace and truth may go unnoticed at Christmas and lost in Epiphany.  Consider our homes and hearths, especially once the lights and candles and trees come down this week (or next)?  How do maintain and manifest God’s warmth, the warmth as of an only begotten child, the warmth and love of Christ?

In a Facebook post just yesterday, our former Senior Minister Mary Luti, who is in Spain right now observing the Feast of the 3 Kings, in Seville I think, wrote the following about Epiphany:  “Epiphany is the season God lights a lamp in the dark for us to see by and says, “Come closer, closer. You’re getting warm. Now over here.  A little more.  Yes, yes.  Now, now you will see.” 

With the season of Epiphany upon us, may we take these words to heart, step into the light, step ever closer to that warmth, and be radiant with God’s love, so much so that we can manifest that love in the world, from generation to generation.  Amen.



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