Epiphany: The Light Shines

For my Christmas sermon, I noted how difficult it was to celebrate Christmas without singing – at least, without singing in church. We did, of course, manage a couple of carol services, following the appropriate regulations and guidance which allowed carol singing to take place outdoors. The St Matthew’s service was held in the car park of Pewterspear Green sports pavilion (thanks to the trustees) and the St Cross service took place outside the church building. Both of these events were appreciated by all who attended, and both were special, memorable occasions. My thanks to those who worked hard to make them happen and everyone who supported them.

The St Matthew’s service came together surprisingly well, given the logistical challenges we faced. We were able to run a cable from the pavilion to power a public address system; and the car park security lighting meant that we weren’t in the dark. Even with the lighting and torches, however, it was difficult to see who was there, but we reckon that there were 66 people in attendance.

I learned afterwards that some in the congregation had seen shooting stars above our heads while the service was taking place; I’m sorry I didn’t see them myself! It occurred to me that, although we have mostly been thinking about what we have lost due to the pandemic, there might also be some things that we have gained: like the opportunity to see shooting stars overhead while singing Christmas carols. That’s something that would never have happened during a service in a church building!

The carol service at St Cross was also a great success. Things were a little easier to manage there as we were on our own turf. Over 50 people joined us, and some said, as it ended, “We should do this again next year!”

I didn’t hear any reports of shooting stars during the St Cross carol service, but earlier in the evening I did see the so-called ‘Christmas star‘. This conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky, something which hadn’t been seen for 800 years (and your next opportunity to witness the event is 400 years away), has been compared to the star over Bethlehem which we read about in Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi (Matthew 2.1-12). Early in the 17th century, the German astronomer, Johannes Kepler, proposed that the biblical star of Bethlehem was in fact a conjunction of these planets.

Stars and other heavenly bodies have always been popularly associated with, well, the heavens. Halley’s comet, for example, has made some notable appearances in history that have been equated with good or bad news, including in 1066 where it was seen as prophesying the Norman Conquest and the defeat of King Harold. It is depicted as such in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Whatever the astronomical facts, Matthew tells us that

after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.
(Matthew 2.1,2)

These wise men, or Magi – Persian astrologer priests – have seen a new star which they interpret as a sign that a new ‘king of the Jews’ has been born. This is bad news for the man who currently holds the title! Herod the Great was given his position as king of Judea thanks to the pagan Emperor Augustus (who proclaimed himself as ‘son of the divine’ after his adoptive father, Julius Caesar was posthumously deified). To Herod, this new star in the sky is no good omen, but a sign that his position is under threat. Herod was ‘notorious for reacting savagely to rivals’ and the story that unfolds is in keeping with that.

The idea of light coming out of darkness is very familiar in our bibles, from the creation story in Genesis, to the Book of Revelation:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good;
Genesis 1.1-3

In the Old Testament book of Numbers, there is a prophetic word that

a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel;
(Numbers 24.17)

This came to be seen as pointing to a time when a leader would be given to God’s people. Matthew presents us with a star that leads the wise to Jesus, who will be King, not just for Jews but for Gentiles too (the Magi were, of course, not Jewish).

In John’s great preface to his gospel, the reading we hear in church on Christmas Night, we are told that in the coming of Jesus is life, and:

the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.4,5)

In the teaching of Jesus we often see darkness and light contrasted. Our lives are to reflect God’s light into a dark world:

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5.16)

The New Testament book of Revelation presents us with Jesus as ‘the bright morning star’:

‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches.
I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’
(Revelation 22.16)

Seeing shooting stars or the Christmas star as part of our Christmas celebrations might just give us hope that, in a dark world, light still shines. At the time of writing, although a new national lockdown has been declared, we are also encouraged by the rollout of vaccines that might just enable us to turn the tide against this pandemic.

At the start of the new year, and as we hear the story of the wise seeking Jesus by following a star in the sky, let us have faith that, in whatever else we face:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
(John 1.4,5)

Advent Themes

On Thursday I spoke – via video link, of course – with a group of Y6 children from one of our local primary schools. They had been looking at Advent and Christmas and had prepared a number of questions for me. These included

What do you wear on Christmas Day? I spoke about my surplice and the colour of my stole. I think they really wanted to know if I had a Christmas jumper. (I do.)

What do you eat on Christmas Day? I spoke about the Christmas puddings I usually make, following Nanny Wellington’s secret recipe. (Not this year, I’m afraid.)

And then I was asked about the themes of Advent. I had to think carefully. The traditional themes for Advent meditation are ‘the Four Last Things’:

Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell

The traditional sermon on Advent Sunday would talk about the Second Coming of Christ as judge and king; useful if the preacher feels the need to tell their congregation to ‘straighten up and fly right’.

“Are you ready to meet God when he comes as judge and king?”

Up to this point, the lesson had been pretty upbeat, and I didn’t want to bring things down. What I said was that, during Advent, Christians try to find some time to reflect on what kind of person they are and what kind of person they would like to be. It’s always difficult, given the rush to be festive that is going on all around us, but our weekly service of Compline and reflection gives an opportunity to take time out from the commercial and other pressures in the run-up to Christmas.

But this year, everything is different. When did Advent begin, that season of solemn reflection? There were no services in church on Advent Sunday. The first candle on the Advent wreath was lit virtually. It seems to me that, this year, Advent began just before Mothering Sunday, the first lockdown. We have had so much time to reflect on our own mortality and shortcomings, waiting for something better to come along, that it seems like we have been in Advent for ever. And the Christmas we are preparing for will be muted and limited. So, let’s not be too hard on ourselves. Let’s not use our Advent sermons and services to preach about the need to straighten up and fly right.

Let’s not pretend that the Christmas message is the one that says “he’s making a list; he’s checking it twice. He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” Instead, let’s hear the ‘comfort and joy’ that God offers in coming to us as Emmanuel, ‘God with us’.