“Sunglasses at night” - January 6, 2013 by Robin Wardlaw
Epiphany, Year C
Readings: Isaiah 60:1–6; Psalm 72:1–7, 10–14; Ephesians 3:1–12; Matthew 2:1–12
Total darkness is hard to find around here most of the time. The chance to appreciate the Milky Way over head on a clear night, for instance. You probably know the stories from one of the great blackouts of recent years–how some city kids looked up at the night sky and asked, What are those? Seeing the stars for the first time in their lives. Light pollution is worrisome. It’s devastating for birds that migrate at night, but it’s hard on all of us. The sleep people tell us that light affects our rest. What we need is total darkness.
How much light is there at night? I had the experience again the other night of watching a car merge onto the highway with no lights on. Eventually the driver figured out the signals from other cars and turned on the lights, but was getting on fine without headlights. Sometimes I have been the one getting the highbeams flashed at me. We have solved the problem of the darkness, and then some. Not everywhere, of course. Not for everyone.
Because we haven’t solved the challenge of the light. Or I should say, lights. Other things that appear to illuminate reality, other things that seem to show us the way. I’m not talking just about present company, but the larger human family. “Arise, shine,” says the prophet, “for your light has come.” Oh, really?, we say, as we reach for dark glasses against the glare. Life can be a bit like centre field on one of those professional football fields or baseball diamonds, with blazing light coming at us from every angle. Some of us even wear sunglasses at night. My title is a shameless attempt to borrow coolness from Corey Hart’s 1983 song. What about the guy in the song, anyway? Why is he shading his eyes? He’s in love, and trying to protect himself from his beloved’s power over him. I think. The meaning of the lyrics is not completely clear to me.
This light, the one the prophet is talking about, the one the psalmist sings, is different. This light is not as bright as some of the other, louder lights, maybe. This light may flicker. It may only move at walking speed. The prophet was talking to people who had been beaten up, dragged away in chains for three generations, a people who had been sitting in darkness for a long time. They are going to be a destination for the world. Others will flock to their society because of God’s glory beaming upon them. And what glory is this?
That’s were the psalmist picks up on the theme and fills in the details. It won’t be for their beaches or their sports teams or their architecture or the soundness of their banks that notables will come from far off places to pay homage. No, it will be because of the caring relationship between the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor. The king, an idealized king, sets the tone:
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.
How many days would you travel to visit such a place? How many travel points would you cash in? The image of a land of great caring is still appealing, even after all these years. Appealing to many. Not all, it seems, judging by our willingness in Western societies to rebuild the class system.
King Herod wasn’t so worried about the radiance of the society over which he presided. His plan was to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem on a grand scale so that people would come to his land as tourists, to be dazzled by a structure even bigger than the temple to Diana at Ephesus. And then the story tells us he heard about the birth of a rival. Not just any rival, and certainly not one approved by Rome, but appointed by God. Sedition, in other words.
How do we do this? The modern day equivalent might be a casino. Something to get the local economy going by getting people to come and leave their shekels behind. How could that be a bad thing? We may get some say in the decision in our day, unlike those long ago residents of Jerusalem whose houses were knocked down to clear the way for a huge new structure. But wait, some will say, the income from a big new tourist attraction will fund pity on the weak and needy, save lives. And the billionaires who are pushing the idea of a casino are blinded by the glare off all the profits to come for generations to come. It turns out casinos are neighbourhood wreckers. Money goes into them instead of going into smaller businesses in their vicinity, and new casualties of capitalism are created.
We can’t paper over the way we set ourselves up. We can’t use bandaids made of money to cover the deep wounds of inequality. We can’t let ourselves be blinded by spotlights that only illuminate part of our world, or shed a rosy light on something that is not in our long term interests. But we do. We do the same thing with ourselves and those around us. So many distractions and excuses for not having a good look at our own lives and relationships.
It’s never-ending, this search for spiritual authenticity, what the bible calls righteousness. If only it ended with the discovery of some infant in an unlikely bassinette. The newborn is in there, inside us, and out there, everywhere. We need the right eye wear. Sunglasses? Maybe not. Microscope? Telescope? Night vision goggles? Northrup Frye used to talk about the double vision of the bible. It saw the way things really were even while it sees the way they can be and will be, all at the same time. So perhaps we need bifocals.
The search continues. Sometimes we are pursuing it with more energy, sometimes less. But it won’t leave us alone. We can’t just turn our camel around, flick on the headlights, and head back where we came from. Thank goodness. We’re destined to be dissatisfied year after year, because we won’t settle for anything until neighbours and nations come to the light, and seekers come to the brightness of our dawn, to paraphrase the prophet. Last word goes to Corey Hart: “I wear my sunglasses at night / So I can, so I can / See the light that's right before my eyes.” Not sure how that works, exactly, but you get what he means.