A sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 28 February 2022 [Last Epiphany]:
Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36
Light: I’ve really been noticing how the days have lengthened since December. Since the winter solstice and the longest night of the year, the increasing amount of daylight has given me a sense of relief – call it an experience of hope. As each day’s light visibly increases, more than the night’s darkness shortens. When, for instance, the morning forecast noted that the coming day would register an increased number of daylight minutes, I could see that upturn, and it lightened my heart. The “darkening” (as my three-year-old grandson, Birch calls the nightfall) has been on the wane. I can see it; I can feel it; and the increased light of these emerging days causes me not only to adjust to the light but to welcome it.
The fact is that after the winter solstice, we gain about one minute of daylight per day. Then, beyond Jan. 11th, this accelerates to two minutes a day; until by mid-February, each day contains three more minutes of daylight. This ascending trajectory slows in May back to two minutes, until at June’s summer solstice, we in the northern hemisphere peak at 15 hours, 13 minutes of daylight.
I remember being in St. Petersburg, Russia, in mid-June, and for the first (and only) time in my life I witnessed what those northern natives call the “White Nights”. In that latitude, the June nights never get past dusk before the sun starts to rise again. A Finnish colleague at the time (whose native land was even farther north) told me that at home he would stay up all night and read in the solstice’s illumination. As the song says, “Here comes the sun!”
Light. In liturgical and spiritual terms, today is a kind of solstice for us. Today not only is the last day in February, tomorrow is not only the beginning of March (doesn’t that sound better already?); but on the Christian calendar we come to the close of Epiphany’s light to enter into Lent. Liturgically and spiritually speaking, you and I and the entire church are enacting a solstice – a solstice of the soul. Only at this faith level we are moving in a kind of reverse direction, from the light of Christ’s manifestation, Christ’s Epiphany into facing our life’s shadows in Lent. Just when we want more light, just when we are ready to move beyond the pandemic, just when we are ready to spring ahead from exhaustion to energy, Lent calls us to pay attention – pay attention to the shadows that stubbornly remain in our lives.
So it is, welcomed or not, that Lent begins in three days. Ash Wednesday inaugurates that forty-day season, where we are invited to notice in increasing ways the light of Christ, even as we dare to experience and acknowledge how attached we are to the darkness.
I have told this story before, but it bears repeating in this context. It was about this time of the year, when I was a little boy, about four-years-old. It was a cloudless and cold day. A large covering of snow had fallen, and I asked to go out and play in this winter wonderland. My Mom put my snowsuit on, wrenched my boots over my shoes, and covered my small hands in mittens. I was ready; or so I thought.
Mom opened the door, and out I went: the dry, crisp snow breaking just below my knees as I plowed a path. In the mind of a four-year-old, my play-plan was to get to my big tricycle, which I evidently had left in the front yard, and peddle my way in the snow. But there were two problems with this plan. One was that my trike was not snow worthy. The other was that I could barely stand to open my eyes: Such was the blinding reflection of the bright sun on the sparkling white snow.
I still remember squinting my eyes from the glare, but it was no use. The brilliance of the light overcame me; and trying to see was quite literally painful. So, I gave up, turned around, and went back to the door, where my mother lovingly removed the bulky winter clothing she had just applied only minutes before. As the phrase goes, I was truly “blinded by the light”. And it was no fun! Being used to darkness, I had to turn away. Yesterday was that kind of day! But I adjusted to the light then and I adjusted yesterday. In this, I want to suggest Lent’s true purpose: Adjusting to the light of God’s Christ.
The experience of Peter, James, and John upon the Mount of Jesus’ Transfiguration strikes as being like my own “snow-blind” venture. What I mean is that Lent entails daring to look at the light, not turning away but adjusting willingly to what life with God is all about. And as I have told you many times before, when we dare to look at God, this is what we see: [arms and hands extended in warm greeting].
Made in God’s image and Christ Jesus being the divine likeness in fully human terms, when we see Christ, we see what God calls us to be and to do. When we insist on thinking that we are self-made men and women times, coming to grips with God and the God-life causes us to wince; and in that blinding pain, we turn away from the very life we need and cannot provide for ourselves.
Lent is that particular time of the soul where we called to admit that we have a need to wince and shield our eyes from seeing ourselves as God sees us. And here is the point I am trying to make.
If your perspective sees God as some kind of IRS agent, demanding an audit of you and ready to penalize you for your incomplete return, then the prospect of Lent’s presence will certainly cause you to wince, perhaps even shriek; but most likely you will join the great throng and simply ignore the entire experience. But if your notion of God and the God-life is not primarily based on morality, of being good enough, being right enough, then the wincing that does accompany Lent need not be blinding – rather just that intended adjustment to the illuminating fact that God seeks to shine the light of his redeeming presence on us, that we may see ourselves as God sees us: the Holy Ones beloved. And all it takes is one glance of this, and we will be changed.
Because in the mystery of the Word made flesh, you have caused a new light to shine in our hearts, to give the knowledge of our gory in the face of your Son Jesus Christ. [*] Amen.
[*]Book of Common Prayer. Holy Eucharist, Proper Preface for the Season of Epiphany, p. 378.