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Made for Light

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Jan 06

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12

We are made for light. We are made to turn our faces toward the sun, to look to the east to the sun’s rising, to bask in light, to draw inspiration and hope from light. On this day—just past the Winter Equinox, that longest night—we look for the return of the light. On this Epiphany Sunday, we celebrate the rising of a star, the journey of the magi, and the light that comes into the world through Jesus.

We are made for light. It turns out this is quite literally true. Scientists have discovered a brain circuit that connects light receptors in the retina with the mood center of the brain. When light falls on these specialized cells, MRI studies show that the mood center of the brain lights up. Exposure to light improves our mood and we’re hard-wired to be that way.

For decades, scientists have believed there were only two kinds of cells in the human retina: rods and cones. But in recent days, scientists have published new findings about a third type of photo-receptor cell, which is responsive to light, but doesn’t seem to help us see.

Have you ever wondered why short days lead to darker moods? Are you, like one in five adults, someone who gets the “winter blues,” or even the more serious Seasonal Affective Disorder? Then this is interesting news! We are made for light.

We have a way to go before we understand how this works, or why. Samer Hattar, of the National Institute of Mental Health, asks, “Why would evolution work this way? You would understand why you need light to see, but why do you need light to make you happy? And why do we need high intensity light to make us happy?” (1)
However imperfectly we understand on a scientific level, we do know on a visceral level. The mystic in each of us knows. The poets among us know: We thrive on light, we are blessed by light, we drink in light, as if it is our very life. The prophet Isaiah proclaims,

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Today, with this ancient text, and with Matthew’s story of the magi and the star, we usher in the Season of Epiphany, and we turn our faces toward the light of Christ. “Epiphany” means, quite simply, manifestation or revelation.

In centuries past, the feast of Epiphany—along with Easter—was one of the greatest festivals of the church year, eclipsing even Christmas in importance. It falls on the twelfth day after Christmas. In early Christian traditions and in other cultures around the world, Epiphany has marked the celebration of Christ’s birth; of his baptism in the Jordan River; and—even—of the first miracle at the wedding at Cana!

It is celebrated with festivals of light, rituals of immersion and baptism, processions of kings bearing gifts. In Bulgaria, Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Greece believers take a brisk dip into icy waters in celebration. In Mexico, Spain, and all of Latin America, parades, fireworks, and special sweets mark the arrival of the magi, who seek out the Christ child, and come bearing gifts. There, the festival is called Three Kings Day – El Dia de los Reyes. In Eastern Orthodox churches, the feast is called Theophany, which means divine revelation.

What—exactly—do you think is revealed on this day of light? What is made manifest on this Feast Day of the Manifestation?

At First Church—and across the United Church of Christ—we celebrated God’s incarnation in Jesus—on Christmas Day. Next Sunday—January 13, we will celebrate his baptism. Last night on Epiphany Eve, we processed through the church in the dark—bringing the light of Christ into the sanctuary with our candles and gathering under the golden dome around the font to remember our baptismal vows. We sang the gorgeous, resonant hymn, “Jesus, the Light of the World,” which we’ll hear as the choral response at the end of today’s service.

And we welcomed the light.

Manifestation. Revelation. I wonder what your experience is in seeking or finding Christ’s light.
Sometimes light comes only after deep darkness and long struggle—perhaps when we emerge from a season of grief or depression. Sometimes light comes as pure gift—perhaps when a broken relationship is mended, forgiveness extended, and—by grace—we discover a gentle, open space within us, where new life can begin. Sometimes light shines through each of us—in the community of the church. We extend a kind word or gentle touch; bring a meal; send a word of encouragement. And in the tenderness of community, Christ is revealed.

Sometimes revelation comes as the result of searching, and dedicated effort. Other times, revelation seems to simply drop from the sky—materializing out of nothing.

Here’s one story about seeking and finding. On a chilly night in April 1997, Kevin and I bundled up our children—then three and six years old—and headed out into the night. We were living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—at 121 and Broadway—in graduate student housing at Union Theological Seminary. And that night we set out to search for the comet Hale Bopp, which was forecast to appear on the western horizon.

And so, we crossed the Union quadrangle, slipped into an academic building, and found our way to the stairs leading to the seminary’s bell tower. Making our way with flashlights through cobwebs, over loose floorboards, and up rickety wooden stairs, we emerged on the rooftop.

There before us was the familiar view of lower Manhattan, with the Empire State Building lit up and—in those days—the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Just across the street, a close view of Riverside Church and beyond it, the Hudson River, glistening silver. Then came the revelation. You can’t see the western horizon from that rooftop. It is completely obscured by the Riverside Church clock tower.

The stretch of horizon where Hale Bopp should have been visible, was completely obstructed. Despite our planning and searching, our adventure was thwarted, and we did not see the comet.

Sometimes, though, revelation comes as a gift. Two nights later, walking along West End Avenue, pushing our youngest in our MacLaren stroller, we saw it—Hale Bopp—streaking low on the horizon, just above the Hudson River. Pure wonder.

Whether through diligent pursuit, or by sheer providence, light dawns.

Our gospel reading from Matthew tells of magi who make a great effort to find the Christ child—wise ones—travelling from the East by the light of a star. And of King Herod, who hears the prediction of the messiah’s birth and—in fear—attempts to learn the whereabouts of the newborn child.

Matthew tells of omens and portents—a super star, a warning that comes in a dream. He tells of the wisdom of these visitors from the East, who find the child (miraculous!) but avoid betraying his whereabouts to the jealous king who might wish him harm.

A story of searching and finding, of truth revealed and light received. In Christian tradition, the magi have come to symbolize the gentiles; their visitation, to represent the first glimmer of Christ’s light emanating to the gentile world.

Matthew’s gospel is the only one that gives any account of this visit, and Matthew does not mention that there are three magi. He mentions no number at all. In the Syrian tradition there are twelve magi. Perhaps our tradition of three travelers from the East comes from the mention of three gifts.

What do we make of the magi, now? Of their dedication and homage to the Christ child? For the magi, what was revealed in that visit to the manger? Perhaps these mysterious dignitaries discovered God’s promise made manifest in human form. Perhaps they returned home and spoke of hope born in a child--small, fragile, and holy.

Perhaps the magi demonstrate for us clear vision, perseverance, single-minded dedication, reverence, the recognition that somehow—in Christ—the stars are aligning, and the cosmic order is shifting. Perhaps Matthew intends to say that we will always find Christ among the lowly. Perhaps he wants to remind us that there will always be fear; there will forever be powerful, jealous rulers. But there will also be joy. Always hope. Always light.

In his homily on Friday, Pope Francis called on the faithful to be like the magi, who continued to look at the sky, took risks, and set out bearing gifts for Christ.
“If we want to find Jesus,” he said, “we have to overcome our fear of taking risks, our self-satisfaction and our indolent refusal to ask anything more of life. We need to take risks simply to meet a child. Those risks are immensely worth the effort, since in finding that child, in discovering his tenderness and love, we rediscover ourselves.” (2)

Friends, what might we discover in this season of Epiphany? What risks might we be willing take? I wonder, what will be revealed to you, what will be made manifest within you? For Christ has surely come and God is in our midst.

How will we walk in the light- the beautiful light?

1) John Hamilton, “Scientists Find A Brain Circuit That Could Explain Seasonal Depression,” NPR News, Morning Edition. https://www.npr.org/sections/healthshots/2018/12/21/678342879/scientists...


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