“Darkness and Light to You are Both Alike”: An Epiphany Reflection

I originally wrote this piece for The Episcopal Church’s Sermons that Work series in honor of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2021.

The metaphors of light and darkness are pervasive throughout Holy Scripture and Church tradition, but such imagery reaches its apogee now, on the Feast of the Epiphany. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, this is the day, in the lean light of January, when we often speak of Christ as brightness, as radiance, as the child bathed in starlight—attempting to articulate how an Incarnate God is not simply present among us, but revealed to us, just as the day is revealed by its dawning.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,” declares Isaiah; it is an invitation to wake from sleep, to gather in the holy places, to pay homage to the one true Gift: God’s desire to know and be known by us. “We observed his star at its rising,” the wise men say, and it is a reminder that even the light of inconceivably distant galaxies has been caught up in the narrative of Divine Love made manifest, reaching across the vastness of space to find itself reflected in the eyes of an infant Lord.

For all the beauty of this imagery, however, and despite its centrality to our faith tradition, as people of this time and place we must contend in new ways with the ideas of darkness and light. We must be mindful of how this dichotomy has been used not only to depict the landscapes of spiritual consciousness but has also been misapplied to the physicality of people themselves, as if the color of our skin were an indicator of our soul’s worth.

This is especially true for those of us who live and worship in the United States; we cannot casually equate “light” with God and “darkness” with evil or ignorance in our preaching and our prayers without realizing how these very terms have been corrupted in recent centuries by our own sinfulness and that of our forebears—by this nation’s history of equating skin color with moral and spiritual capacities. All of us, no matter our background or good intentions, are inheritors of this bitter reality, and as Christians attentive to justice and reconciliation and breaking down that which disfigures beloved community, part of our own emerging Epiphany is a frank assessment of how language can harm just as powerfully as it can heal.

This is not about erasing the use of traditional imagery, nor is it about excising portions of Scripture. It is about taking these resources even more seriously than we have before: sitting with them, wrestling with them, plumbing the depths of Christian writing and hymnody to incorporate the full scope of ways we might speak about God—the One whom John calls “the true light… coming into the world,” but also the One of whom the psalmist says, “darkness and light to you are both alike.” The God whom Isaiah promises will be our “everlasting light” and the One whom the mystical theologian Pseudo-Dionysius calls “the ray of divine darkness.”

Rich and varied use of such metaphorical language preserves us from two extremes: first, from assuming that this imagery has no intrinsic power of its own to shape our social consciousness (it does); and second, from idolizing such imagery as if it were itself God (it isn’t). It is in the tension of opposites, then, and the playful spectrum between them, that we find our language’s best attempt at expressing the inexpressible, the experience of which we celebrate today.

For many of us, these considerations might feel like uncharted terrain. As such, the wise men in Matthew’s Gospel are ideal guides for our journey—strangers from another land, led through the night by wonder and hope, following the path to Christ fixed in the stars (which, of course, can only be seen in the dark). The Magi are not bound by the political machinations of Herod; they are not beholden to the present order of domination and exploitation. Instead, they are guided by dreams and visions, by the wisdom of hidden roads, by attentiveness to the signs around them. And in their journey—one that is itself the union of brightness and shadow—they are led to the place of our collective longing: to gaze upon the hidden face of God and to know that it is indeed God gazing back, beyond metaphor, beyond language itself, as pure, Incarnate presence.

How might we, too, encounter God again, if we are courageous enough to think deeply about the language we use to approach Divine Mystery? How might we, too, be guided to travel “by another road,” a road upon which we acknowledge the limits and the lamentable uses of “light” and “dark” in our recent past and then push beyond them? What new ways might we dream of to depict and express the epiphany that God is, and always has been, reaching out from across eternity to abide with us, to heal us, to bring us back to ourselves?

For us, as Episcopalians, this is an instance where our liturgy, our theological process, and God’s mission converge to do a brave new thing. As with any worthwhile journey, this is not one that can be finished quickly, nor can it be done alone. We must listen to one another, and to the voices of others whose lives are quite different from our own. We must be willing to hold ourselves accountable for speaking eternal truth in new and varied ways, knowing that even our most beautiful language is but a foretaste of the beauty that will one day be revealed in its fullness. But until then, it is what we have to offer.

“They all gather together, they come to you,” Isaiah promises the Holy City of God, and still we are coming, traversing the ages, stumbling, lost, hopeful, guided by stars and secret longings, to the place that is neither dark nor light, but deep and dazzling nonetheless—the place of love’s Epiphany: distant, hidden, home.

Jesus, the Incarnate Lamentation of God

I offered this address as a video teaching on June 21, 2020, as part of a parish retreat, “The Transformative Power of Lament.” That video can be viewed here.

This weekend we have spent a great deal of time considering how and why we lament. We have talked about God’s ability to hear and hold our lament; about how God wants us to express our sorrow as one part of the deep fullness of what it means to be human. 

But what about God? Is God simply an impassive sort of figure, up there, who calmly, magnanimously receives our cries of grief and frustration with a cosmic pat on the head? Or does lamentation itself somehow bear the image of Divine Life? Can we say that God, that perfect Trinity of Love, is also a figure of lamentation?

Yes, I think we can. And as followers of Jesus, I would say that we must. Because in Jesus, in both his earthly life and in his passion and crucifixion, we see and hear God’s enfleshed lament. God’s anguish. God’s piteous tears.

The idea that God might have a lamentation to offer back to creation was intuited long before the Incarnation, of course. The tradition of the Hebrew prophets already bears the imprint of God’s sorrow over Israel’s brokenness

From the prophet Amos:

Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:

Fallen, no more to rise,

is maiden Israel;

forsaken on her land,

with no one to raise her up.

For thus says the Lord God:

The city that marched out a thousand

shall have a hundred left,

and that which marched out a hundred

shall have ten left.

For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:

Seek me and live. (Amos 5:1-4)

And then in Jesus, we hear something so very similar, uttered on the human lips of that very same God, who has come to be as one with creation, and thus issues a cry in his own voice: 

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42-44)

That is, of course, the pathos of God from the very beginning of our story, from Eden, through the Exodus, to Calvary and beyond —an inability to be fully recognized by creation in those moments of visitation. The Father weeps, in a sense, over our inability to see his face clearly through the tears of our finitude; the Son weeps over the hardness of our hearts, ossified by fear and apathy; the Holy Spirit weeps over our inability to hear her crying out across the the desert, across the void of infinite closeness between us.

Thinking about God as a figure of lamentation changes a few things. First, it recasts a lot of the ideas about God’s “wrathfulness” in a new light. What would be like if you imagined all of those “angry” proclamations from God in Scripture as being, instead, expressions of deep grief, said through tears and sighs? Would that affect how you imagine God’s realationship with the world?

This should not be especially surprising, if we think about it, because as Christians, Jesus reveals precisely what God has to say to the world about its brokenness, unmediated through the prophets, and far from being an expression of vengeful anger or rage, it is an expression of lament. Somehow God knows, in Holy Wisdom, that lament is the necessary message. 

Why is this? 

The theologian and scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that it is grief and lament, rather than rage, which God offers to us in Jesus because God understands that lament is the fundamental act which penetrates the numbing self-interest of systems of domination and death; it is God’s solidarity wtih us, God’s joining in our anguish and asking us to learn from anguish rather than acting out of denial. It is in taking up our cross that we encounter the narrow but certain path to wisdom and redemption. The way, the truth, and the life.  Thus it is Only lamentation—that which we express and that which we listen to from others—which can build compassion within us, soften our hearts, and open us up to the mystery of transformative love.  

As Brueggemann writes, “Newness comes precisely from expressed pain. Suffering made audible and visible produces hope, articulated grief is the gate of newness, and the history of Jesus is the history of entering into the pain and giving it voice” (The Prophetic Imagination, 91).

And so when we look at Jesus on the cross, the ultimate expression of God’s lamentation, we are looking at that gateway into newness. We are looking at the articulation of God’s grief over a broken creation, and of God’s deep longing to be so close to us that he is willing to be broken himself. And then, in the resurrection, the definitive evidence that lament, for all its power, is a prelude to something even more powerful: healing, liberation, and enduring life. 

But in Jesus we learn that it is a necessary prelude. There is no shortcut around Golgotha, no avoiding an intentional engagement with grief. This, in some ways, is one of Christianity’s unique contributions to the faith traditions of the world—that suffering is itself a wisdom path, a holy road, one that Divinity itself has trod.

It is not a road for the fainthearted, but it is also not one that we walk alone. God walks with us, and we walk it with each other, to encourage, to listen, to grieve, and to celebrate as one body.

So, as we conclude our retreat, the question is: are we willing to go down that road? Are we willing to go through the gate of newness that is the cross? Are we willing to articulate our grief, and respond to the grief of others? Are we willing to weep with Jesus at the edge of the city, to bear that same fierce love he does, for people, including ourselves, who have not recongized the things that make for peace?

If we are willing, then lamentation is where we begin. 

God bless you on the journey. I will see you out there.

Holy Week at Home #8: Easter Day

The final installment of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; a meditation on happiness and joy in a season when both feel harder to inhabit. Yet still we say: Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

Something I am continuing to discover is how joy and happiness are not the same thing. And on this particular Easter, when the usual signs of celebration are absent or muted by grief, understanding that distinction feels more important than ever.

Happiness is precious and usually comes, in its purest form, unbidden, from humble things. A flower blooming, a familiar voice, a gentle hand outstretched. But happiness also vanishes as quickly as it comes, and cannot be pursued. We must learn to hold it gently, and then let it go.

Thus I think of Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in the garden on Easter morning. There is a flower and a voice and an outstretched hand, yes, but also this: “Do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father, to my God and your God.” This happiness is only momentary. Resurrection is not just reunion. It’s also letting go.

So, we must consider what we mean by joy, and Easter joy in particular. Not mere happiness, but perhaps, instead, a fullness. Fullness of life. Fullness of presence, both God’s presence and our own. A fullness that contains happiness, yes, but also grief, and confusion, and wonder, and mercy, and everything else that emanates from the deep heart of Life. A fullness that sustains us even when our pleasures feel meagre, as they sometimes do.

As we live into the reality of this unusual Eastertide, I find myself kneeling in the garden with Mary Magdalene, having experienced such a collision of grief and happiness that my soul feels stretched beyond its capacity. But I am choosing to trust that in the stretching, there is the shape of joy. In the stretching, Christ is forming me into something new. Something that can contain a bit more of the vastness of God’s dream, wherein Resurrection finds its source and endpoint.

Blessed Easter, dear friends. I wish you happiness to soothe your spirit. And I wish you joy, that each of us might become who God made us to be.

Holy Week at Home #7: Holy Saturday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Holy Saturday we are caught in that space between grief and hope. I have a particular love for the Virgin Mary on this day, who is known on Holy Saturday as Our Lady of Solitude. She has been with me through many seasons of waiting and wondering, including this one. I dedicate this poem to her.

In between beginnings, I must learn to live in interims.

And today I am here, in that shadow-place at the intersection of memory and hope,
The dove-grey moment
when the past ebbs, unreachable
and the cloud bears no hint of light.

Where have you gone, my beloved?

I wait, and yes, I grieve
the yet-unsatisfied promise
But I also find that

shadows cast their own illumination over those who pause to consider–
who ponder in their heart–
the saintliness of not knowing;
The beatitude of contingency.

And as the night enfolds understanding
As your absence drapes over me like a mantle of fog
I perceive how needed it is
To say goodbye, and to mean it

To let this waiting be its own solace
Its own teacher
Its own revelation of the
unchanging liminality
at the heart of my restless heart.

After the going and before the coming
There is simply this,
The sufficient poverty of now,
And that must always be enough
Or nothing ever will.

Son, behold your mother
in repose
in recollection
in the resilience you required of her
wild as the sea-grass
Bending
in solitude
But rising
in strength.

Holy Week at Home #6: Good Friday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Good Friday we stand at the foot if the Cross as Jesus is crucified. 

Look up.

He is unfurled
aloft,

Like a flag of surrender,
So that you might see, and know
It is finished.

Like a scroll,
So that you might read the lines on his skin and find the place
where it is written in rivulets of tears:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.
I have been anointed to proclaim release.
And I am releasing—
I am giving up
my spirit.

A broken body
Arched like a question
inquiring into your frailty;
testing whether it is tolerable
For love to cost this much.

But if you will stay
In this place without answers
Then you will learn that the
rending and the mending of the world
are two notes of the same song.

You will learn that there is no such thing
as dispassionate salvation
or tentative redemption.

And how in the Divine economy
everything is given
And returned
Eternally.

You will learn that nothing is ever wasted
even when waste is the only credible conclusion.
Even when all the evidence suggests defeat.

You will learn that victory is not the same as winning;
that truth is not the same as certainty;
And that peace is not the same as pleasure.

But all of this is offered now, only now,
On this desiccated and necessary hill,
The final bequeathment of a dying God
Who cannot teach you the secrets of eternity
Without entering finitude.

Look up, into his face.

Look up, and see how he is grieving all of your endings.

Look up, and see how he is dying all of your deaths.

Look up, and see the world pass into something new.

Look up. 

Holy Week at Home #5: Maundy Thursday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Maundy Thursday we commemorate Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, as well as Jesus’ anguish and arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. 

Before I must die, he says, let me show you what cannot be killed.

Always, your tyrants will stumble. Your temples will fall. Time and plague lay will lay waste. Enmity will wound.

But there is something else, something underneath and beyond the brittle, crumbling certainties of this (and every) age. Something eternal.

Let us gather together at this table so you might glimpse it, dancing in the shadows as your faces shine in the lamplight. Let me feed you here, let me cleanse you. Let me be with you forever in this moment, even when I must go.

Begin to understand, beloved ones, that there are things more precious than that which you can hold onto. You must begin to see the strange inversion of Truth: how service is power; how love is relinquishment; how death opens us to life.

I admit that I could never explain this to you adequately in words alone. So now I can only demonstrate. I can only *be* for you what is commanded for us all. My tools are bread and wine and water basin. And tomorrow there will be other instruments, but let us not speak of them yet.

Oh, beloveds, how I have loved you, ever since my breath first swept across the waters, ever since I molded you from dust. How I have longed to be known by you.

And so, as you have said to me so often through the cascading generations, I now say to you:

Here Am I.
I Am Here.

I have come from across eternity to kneel before you. To breathe across this water. To wash the earth from your feet of dust.

I am the unkillable offering. I give you myself so that you will know how, even if you do not know why.

Do the same, always, in remembrance of me.

Holy Week at Home #4: Spy Wednesday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Holy Wednesday, also known as “Spy Wednesday” we focus on Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus. His reasons for doing so have been long debated in the Christian tradition; the Gospels leave a number of possibilities open to interpretation. 

Facades are so tempting; they promise to make us presentable to the world, maybe even impressive. We plaster all the cracks, drape over the torn fabric of the heart. We adorn ourselves with fear and fig leaves, trembling and hidden like Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening, terrified of being truly seen. 

Thus we find Judas, the “spy” of Spy Wednesday, peering out from behind his mask of virtue while rage, or jealousy, or longing, roils deep within. We don’t know precisely why he betrays Jesus, and that unknowability, that unbreakable facade is, itself, part of his tragedy–and ours. Empathy is only possible when we see below the surface. Without it, we are lost to one another, as Judas is lost to us.

But we should not dispose of him so easily, lest we exempt ourselves from the questions his story poses. Do any of us fully understand why we harm one another? Can we ever discern the exact balance of love and fear that motivate our daily choices? Is there a way to break free from the artifice, the suffocating ornamentation, under which we have burdened and betrayed ourselves?

Following Jesus is partly an attempt to reckon with those questions, even if our answers are fumbling. He stands there in the night, ready to receive our kiss, asking whether we know why we offer it. He stands there, forgiving us for the paltry silver we’ve gathered to justify our unexamined lives.

And here, finally, in the cool of another evening, we experience the ultimate futility of hiding from him; there is no more time for our pitiable facades.

He understands, even when we do not: only love and death, now. Only the integrity of naked flesh, and wood, and stone, now. In them, we will finally face ourselves. In them, all truth will be revealed.

 

Holy Week at Home #3: Holy Tuesday

Our entire life can be spent waiting for something to happen. Waiting for *that* thing to happen, the one we can’t quite name: the consummation of an unarticulated desire; the answer to a half-posed question, caught in our throat like a crumb of daily bread.

It is all-too-easy, though, to let this waiting be sufficient. To exist in a state of vague expectancy, neither starved nor nourished, having grown accustomed to glancing at life–at ourselves and one another–indirectly, furtively, never head-on.

But today we must let that go. We must risk an encounter with the emerging fullness of God’s purpose for us.

In Tuesday’s Scripture, Jesus does this. He accepts his own, pivotal role in that mysterious purpose: to be lifted up and poured out, revealing an unending effusion of mercy sourced in the headwaters of creation.

It is not the answer he wanted. Not the path he might have chosen. But we come to understand, in time, that our lives, lived most deeply, are not completely our own. And when the hour comes and the wait is over–when that existential answer arrives–it will inevitably lead us out, beyond the familiar and deadening malaise, beyond safety, to the place where our heart will be pierced and our eyes will be opened. The place of pure, unmediated Life.

Holy Week at Home #2: Holy Monday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Holy Monday the Gospel reading depicts Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus with precious ointment (John 12:1-9).

Spring is a season of guileless generosity. The trees and flowers cry abundant, blossoming tears of gratitude for the gentle return of warmth to the earth. The soft evening air feels gently magnanimous, like new love, or a reconciliation.

On Holy Monday we are told of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany; how Mary, the sister of Martha, pours precious fragrance on his feet and wipes them with her hair. Extravagant and unnecessary, says Judas, who cannot see beyond the imperatives of his limited, grasping imagination.

No, says Jesus, she has done this out of deep wisdom, for my burial approaches.

Extravagance is only harmful when it gathers bounty toward oneself, into the bottomless void of a misunderstood hunger. The extravagance of giving is the only possible satiation.

So, like springtime, like the exuberant wildflowers bending to kiss the dark soil, with the gratitude of one who has perceived the true cost of Love, thus has Mary poured out her gift. Thus has she anointed God with her necessary offering, for his necessary offering which is to come.

Help me now, Lord, in my fear of your Cross, and of my own. Allow me to rest at your feet. Allow me to gather what beauty I can, and then to offer it back; to let the blossoms loose and fall, as they must: an anointing of the earth, a making way, so to bear the fruit not yet tasted.

Holy Week at Home #1: Palm Sunday

With liturgies suspended for this (most unusual) Holy Week, I wrote some brief daily meditations/reflections/poems on social media as a way to navigate the passage from Palm Sunday to Easter without the usual guideposts of communal worship. 

The process of daily writing and posting was a reminder for me that our praise of God is just as much about what we offer–the oblation of our hearts–as it is what we receive. So even now, when we are separated by circumstance and the usual blessings of the liturgy feel distant, we can still present our humble gifts with gratitude. With this in mind, here are the posts I shared last week.

PALM SUNDAY: 

You know that anxious feeling of entry into something unfamiliar and inevitable, like the first day of school or that difficult conversation you simply can’t put off? The dry mouth and the churning gut? The sweat on the back of your neck?

Such is Palm Sunday. Bright, dizzying, crystallized, expectant, palm leaves that scratch your own palms, cries of praise that leave you hoarse. The big event that doesn’t quite satisfy.

Palm Sunday has a feverish quality, like infatuation that has convinced itself that it’s love. It is desire without generosity. Longing without trust.

As we stand at the roadside, or peer from our windows, at the man who enters our midst on a donkey, let us be mindful of all that we still project onto him, all the ways we demand him to solve the heartbreaks and hatreds of our own creation. He comes to illuminate suffering, but not to erase it. He comes to show us life, but we must still traverse through the narrow gate that leads there. When we cry Hosanna, when we wave the branch, we are greeting a very different sort of salvation than the one we privately hoped for. If we truly understood it, its magnitude and its cost, we would likely fall silent as he passed by.

Palm Sunday is                                                                                                                                   the irony of ripping branches                                                                                              zealously;                                                                                                                                                to kill the tender green                                                                                                    prematurely–                                                                                                                                         a misguided homage to the One
Who would not break a bruised reed.
In our plundering jubilation we are convicted–
but soon
he will gather the trampled fronds and
mend the broken branches back
onto the Tree of Life.