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Don't repeat the mistake on page 847 of The Prayer Book . Here is what God really requires from the chosen people:
A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
Into a Dark Night in a Dark Time
Epiphany Year A
“And when he rode past, I seen he was carrying fire in a horn the way people used to do, and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was going on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire in all that dark and all that cold…”
That line is from the last scene of No Country for Old Men, the Cohen brother’s new epic film based on a novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. It is a quite fine film if you can stomach the violence. I think it is still on in Daphne and Mobile. It is a tale about a drug deal gone bad along the Texas Mexico border. The protagonist is a young everyman caught up in the vast evil that is the illegal drug trade and the violence it begets in our world….an evil that pervades just who knows where and how far. There were only four or five of us in the theatre. You know how it is when you leave a movie theatre: The movie has transported you into the alchemical world of the artifice, your imagination has been given over to the charge of another, and now, upon leaving, one must re-assemble one’s wits and re-enter the cold, dark and flat reality of a Monday evening…one’s heart still pounding with the lavish memory of the experience….like waking from a poignant dream.
As we were pulling out of our parking space amid the garish neon light of Jubilee Shopping center, I recognized the young man next to us as one of the few who had just seen the movie. In my evangelical zeal for Cormac McCarthy (that’s my sideline by the way: to get people to read his erudite work) in my evangelical zeal I rolled down the window and asked him why he’d come; and in a South Alabama drawl he said: “Well I heard it was a pretty good flick…” I don’t know what I had expected….maybe: “Well I wanted to experience the contemporary mythic voice of the American soul.” That would have been good…but that is not what he said….and just before I could say goodnight, his eyes arrested mine….eyes aflame….and he asked in all earnestness…. “Sir…What did it mean?”
I thought for a few seconds here at the eastern shore Rave sixteen multiplex after dark, and I said, “I don’t know for sure what it means…it may take a long time to figure it out….if ever; that’s the way art is” I said….His attention still rapt; I couldn’t end there…. “But one theme, I said, consistent in McCarthy, is the placing into artful contrast the overwhelming evil of our world up and against the faint, fragile but sure goodness that a few are called to bear….He was listening…. “A pin-point of light seemingly overmatched up and against a vast and conspiring darkness,” I continued. He nodded and thanked me, and we headed our respective ways back into the dark solstice of a cold night in December.
Indeed the scene set by the writer of Matthew in our reading today is much the same: A dark night in a dark time. This birth of the heir of David, the one in the line of Moses, the progeny of Abraham, the very son of God…the birth is set in the context of Empire. This revelation, this Epiphany of epiphanies is set up and against power gone wrong…..Matthew again in touch with the pattern of scripture…Isaiah foretelling of looming darkness; like the Pharaoh of Egypt in Israel’s history some thousand years before, Herod, the infanticidal client king working for the Romans, plots to murder this child of promise in order that his own power would never be challenged or compromised. The scribes and Pharisees throughout this Gospel are in league to protect their own positions of power and social standing. This birth, this pin-point of life emerges amid a vast and conspiratorial darkness. And we know, as Matthew foretells, that this darkness will catch up with Jesus; Herod’s wishes fulfilled posthumously with Jesus’ brutal torture and death by crucifixion at the hands of the powers that be. So with full knowledge of this intrinsic, seemingly intractable darkness, Matthew dares to ask the question, “What does this birth mean?” And is there yet hope? You remember that this Gospel is written after the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans, and the crackdown continues in Matthew’s time….a dark time.
So the scene, the scene recurrent throughout human history is set…. A warm and joyful flicker of light….singing shepherds, a live birth full of promise…the peculiar Magi (not kings as the tradition has made them) but Astrologers who historians say had fallen out of favor with the royal courts of the east in the first century….empire turning a deaf ear to those who would speak the truth of the stars in the royal courts….they are in essence out of work philosophers….but searching still, on a quest, eyes aflame…. pilgrims after the mystery that is the light of the world…the star, the talisman of the truth they seek…What does it all mean? they ask…and is there yet hope in the dark?….they are led away from the palaces of power, no longer welcome… to the lonely hill country of Judea…led into the midst of outcast shepherds and farm animals…. Into the cold flat reality of everyday existence, their hearts beating with joy as if in a waking dream; and there they see the light of the universe, a pin-point of light amid the dispossession of a darkening world.
So Matthew is holding up for us two kingdoms: two kingdoms between which we must choose. Which kingdom will shape and define us? The kingdom of power; or and the kingdom of vulnerability….On the one hand the corrupt and murderous kingdom of empire; and on the other the compassionate community of faith which was as countercultural then as it is now. For the remainder of this Gospel, which we will be reading all year, Matthew will speak of the meaning of this kingdom, what this kingdom looks like; the kingdom of God, this fragile and vulnerable child brings, the kingdom of God in eternal advent…coming as we speak, signs of its coming everywhere, but not yet…a pin-point of light, a tenuous flame, guttering against the winds of evil…but aflame nonetheless…still aflame sending at light speed good news into the fearful darkness.
The writer of the Gospel of John tells us in the prologue that the Christ the true Word is the light of the world, and that that light is the light of humankind. When dear people of God will we hear that. When will we take up our own Christ-likeness and get on with the mission for which we were born. At the birth of Christ at the margins of existence…we are born there too….we the ones no less than this child over whom the star descends and stops…we sons and daughters of God…we born of this light…and we are overmatched….the evil is so vast…..but the truth dear people of God is that this fragile and tender and tenuous light is all the promise we need….the Epiphany of our God is that the light is born in earth and the darkness has not to this day overcome it….nor shall it ever…dare we believe that and dare we act upon that.
Brothers and sisters, at our Baptism we were given over to the charge of another. We are citizens of the kingdom of God first and foremost. Never forget that. Our imaginations belong to a God who loves the world beyond all knowing. As children of the light we are given over to loving the world into existence…the world still being created, continually being remade, under the auspices of a pin-point of light…..a light we bear with joy… And this light evokes the fruits of the kingdom: this light calls forth mercy, and justice and peace-making, and loving kindness, incarnate goodness….things the darkness can’t stand against.
As we make our way into what this all means, pilgrims on our quest, as we make our way into the mystery…..as we are “fixin to make a fire in all that dark and all that cold”… May God grant us courage, for courage it will take….know that… but may our hearts beat like hearts stirred in a dream….God’s very dream for God’s world….a world ordered by the goodness that we are called to bear. If we couldn’t do it; if it were impossible, we wouldn’t be asked. So, yes to God’s kingdom; yes to the dream; and yes to the light….the light that will burn forever in all that cold and in all that dark.
The Rev. James B. Flowers, Jr.
Rector, All Saints Episcopal Church
Mobile, Al. 36604
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