On Monday, I presided over a funeral for a member of the congregation where I serve as pastor. I found myself standing between two lights: the light of the Paschal candle and a depiction of the star of Bethlehem. I used these images in the sermon I shared, some of which follows:
We are a people living between two lights.
To my right stands the Paschal Candle. This candle is traditionally lit on Easter and throughout the Easter season, but brought back into the sanctuary at times of funerals and baptisms to remind us of how we already participate in Christ’s power over sin and death. We bring it back often, because we do not often feel this victory and we need to be reminded of it.
It is a light that shines out of the deepest darkness. Being first lit at Easter, it reminds us of the light of Christ breaking forth from the tomb, where we thought all was darkness and finished. The Paschal candle reminds us that we are an Easter people, ours is a resurrection faith.
Behind me, depicted in a banner, is the star of Bethlehem. Tomorrow, January 6th, is the feast of Epiphany. In western Christendom, this date has long been used to mark the end of the Christmas season. Traditionally, Epiphany is the day we remember the visitation of the wise men. Epiphany not only affirms the visitation of these foreigners to the child Jesus. Epiphany not only reminds us of the giving of gifts, strange gifts for a child: gold, frankincense and myrrh; gifts which already betoken a coming death. Epiphany also reminds us that these men were guided by a light, the star of Bethlehem.
We remember that the star, even then, was shinning in a world where death and destruction often seemed to hide its light. We remember that Herod, would later call for the destruction of all the children in Bethlehem, trying to rid the world of the light to which this star points. Though sin continued, though death and destruction still ran rampant; the star of Bethlehem continued to shine, proclaiming God’s gift.
Today, we may feel closest to this last light, the star of Bethlehem. Not just that we are closer chronologically to Epiphany than Easter. Rather we may be feeling closer emotionally and psychologically to this star shining in the darkness.
Amidst the pain of separation that comes with death, we are guided by a light, a ray of hope that breaks forth in the night, a star which brings us to a place of hope and peace and comfort, even amidst decay and death.
We are an Easter people, but we realize that often we are guided through the night by the light of a star.
John says in the beginning of his gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This is the hope of our faith which propels us onward.
Jesus, in our gospel text today says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You believe in God, believe also in me.” Here we catch the glimpse of light amidst our sadness and pain, a star shining through the grief to bring us to the hope of resurrection.
We are a people living between two lights. A star in the sky guides us to the light of Easter, but our journey takes us through a death. As the words of one of our Affirmations of Faith puts it, “In life, in death, in life beyond death; we are not alone. God is with us.” Thanks be to God.
That is some of what I shared with the congregation. As I wrote it, and even now as I read back over it, I was also thinking of the tragic death of a friend this weekend. We worked together several years ago and discovered some common interests. One of the things we shared in common was family roots in the Appalachian mountains. As I thought of his death, and standing between these two lights I remembered a song that came out of the Appalachian region in the early 20th century: Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. Several recording artists have performed this song in recent years, but to really enjoy it find a good Bluegrass version like Ralph Stanley’s. (search on Youtube) There are lots of lines from the song that speak to me in this moment but I keep returning to this verse:
Oh beautiful star, the hope of light
Guiding the pilgrims through the night
Over the mountains till the break of dawn
Into the land of perfect day
It will give out a lovely ray
Oh beautiful star of Bethlehem, shine on
We forget sometimes the pain and suffering that many experience around the holidays. We sometimes jump quickly from manger scenes and lose sight of Matthew’s quote from Jeremiah regarding Herod’s destruction in Bethlehem:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more. (Matthew 2:18)
Epiphany reminds us that God sends us a light even in the darkness, oh beautiful light shine on!