Resurrection is Contagious: A Homily for the Great Vigil of Easter


It’s funny how an idea gets in your head…how it takes root and then turns into a bigger idea until it changes the way you see things. A couple of weeks ago, as part of a casual scroll through Facebook, my attention was drawn to a cartoon posted by a clergy friend of mine. The cartoon has the tagline “what if they had cell phones at the resurrection”. It shows Jesus stepping out of the tomb to a small crowd recording this miraculous moment. One person has their back turned to the glorious appearance, texting a friend the details no doubt.

While this carton may give us a good chuckle, and makes a claim about how we use, or are used by technology today, it does raise a very important theological question: what if someone was standing outside the tomb that first Easter morning with their cell phone camera clicking or recording away at the moment of resurrection – what would they have seen?

cell phone easter

For most of the earliest Christian tradition there was little or no paintings, pictures or carvings of the resurrection. It was thought to be too mysterious, too incomprehensible to replicate. Later artwork simply showed an empty tomb, stunned guards or radiant angels to represent the resurrection. Later on in the Western Church Jesus began to be shown stepping out of the tomb alone, maybe with an angel or two close by as witnesses, and often with him carrying a white banner or flag. The banner is symbolic of his victory or death – Jesus has conquered death, and so we, too, will be raised to new life after we die. Jesus is the personal saviour, and faith in him holds out the promise of resurrection, understood as life after death, to individuals.

But is that all that the resurrection of Jesus is or does? Is it just life returning to a dead body? Is it final proof that Jesus is indeed the son of God? Is it just a singular event or does it have more of a communal application?

In the Eastern Church they have always had a different view of Jesus’ resurrection. In their art, Jesus never rises alone. He’s always pictured rising with others, Adam and Eve especially. Jesus rises carrying with him the first ancestors of the human species. The symbolism is unmistakable: when Jesus is raised we are all raised.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, back to my original question: if someone was standing outside the tomb that first Easter morning what would they have seen? Contemporary Franciscan writer Richard Rohr says that what they would have seen is light, beams of light shooting out in all directions, like the warping of time and space. The bruised and bloody body of Jesus, laid on cold stone, immersed in the smell of decay and fresh dug earth, explodes in light, becoming the glorified body of Christ. The dead become alive. From the darkness comes light. Then and there becomes universal, eternal.

This is not an outrageous idea. The first act of creation, the very first word, is light. All throughout the Hebrew Scriptures light is a powerful metaphor of the unseen God, whether it’s the smoking fire pot, the burning bush, the pillar of fire, the sacrificial flame or the consuming fire of the coming Day of the Lord. Yahweh is light!

The Christians take up this theology of divine light and freely apply it to Jesus. He is the light that shines in the darkness, on those who live in darkness (Matt 4:16; Luke 1: 79; Isa 9:2). In John’s gospel Jesus refers to himself as the light of the world (8:12). All throughout the synoptic gospels Jesus heals those who are blind and helps others to see clearly the truth of the Kingdom of God. Early Christians had no problem applying the language of God’s light to Jesus. The writer of the letter of John says, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5) and that in Jesus that light of love is seen in a new and radiant way.

In their liturgy, too, they made great sacramental use of light to express Jesus and his theological significance. Our liturgy this evening is a perfect example. The ancient celebration of the Great Vigil of Easter not only aims to tell the great story of salvation from creation through to resurrection by the reading of scripture, but it also uses light to tell this story. And it tells us how that light, the divine light, the light of Christ, the light of that first Easter morning, now burns in each one of us.

We begin with the light of the new fire, symbolic of the eternal light of God. From it we light the Paschal or Christ candle, the light of resurrection, the new creation, coming into the world. From it we light our own candles, symbolic of the spread of that first resurrection light out into the world. Jesus is the first fruits of the resurrection, but it spreads in every human life in which the light is allowed to shine. Then in baptism we pass this light to the newly baptized, to Amy and Alexa. Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in Heaven.

This is something that both the fundamentalist atheists and Christians get wrong about the resurrection. They waste incredible amounts of time arguing about whether or not Jesus was physically raised from the grave, whether resurrection is a historical, factual event. They miss the point entirely. The resurrection is an unfolding, all-encompassing reality. It is the new creation light of God, that all of us, all of creation is being caught up in, participating in.

That’s why I think light is such an appropriate way to describe resurrection. We have all experienced it, felt it and know it to be true. Perhaps it was at a bedside as we held the hand of a loved one, whose faith and courage in the face of death filled us with light, a light the lingers still. Or perhaps it was as you held your child for the first time – especially for mothers – and you know that such beautiful light has come from such long waiting, pain and suffering. Maybe it was as you sit beside an ocean or mountain or the great wide expanse of the prairies, and your senses drink in the vastness of creation, the immensity of something bigger than you. Or perhaps you have caught a glimpse of it with your hands in the soil of your garden, as green shoots of life spring from the decomposing soil and subterranean creepy-crawlies scatter in the summer sunlight.

Yes, for those who have eyes to see it, resurrection is everywhere, even in everyone. We who follow Jesus should know that better than anyone. Like sparks from a great fire, resurrection is springing up everywhere. To quote the great Ricard Rohr again: “Resurrection is contagious, and free for the taking. It is everywhere, visible and available for those who have learned how to see, how to rejoice, and how to neither hoard nor limit God’s ubiquitous gift.” So perhaps if we could get this idea, the new way of seeing into our heads and hearts, we would find a new way of following Jesus, a new way of being his church, a new way to proclaim and live that Christ is risen indeed.


Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s.





In You Must Go: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

In You Must Go

Allow me to invite you to a very non-traditional beginning to the Lenten season. Come with me to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, to the planet Dagobah in a star system of the same name, in the Sluis Sector. Dagobah is a swampy, cloudy planet far from the peering eyes of the Republic. It is here that Yoda has taken the young Jedi Luke Skywalker for further training in the Jedi ways. Dagobah is known to be strong with the force.

In particular Yoda is trying to teach Luke how to use the force. The frustration is that the dark side of the force – the anger, fear and tendency to aggression – is holding Luke back from becoming the Jedi master that Yoda believes him to be. Yes, the force is strong with this one, but he is his own biggest obstacle.

As they are training in the swamps of Dagobah, Yoda actually has Luke running around the swamps with himself fixed on his back. Luke’s attention is drawn to a cave near the root of a large tree. Luke says, “There’s something not right…I feel cold. Death.” Yoda explains to the scared and confused Luke that the cave is dangerous and strong with the dark side of the force. Yoda says to Luke, “In you must go.”

When Luke asks Yoda what is in the cave, the Jedi Master responds paradoxically: “Only what you take with you.”

In a flash of youthful hubris, Luke grabs his weapons to descend into the cave. The wise Yoda calls after him that his weapons will do him no good. Luke does not listen and enters the cave. Once in the dark, dingy cave filled with creepy crawlies and cobwebs Luke soon confronts his archenemy, Darth Vader. They both draw their light sabers and, after a short battle, Luke decapitates the Supreme Commander. As the trademark mask of Vader disintegrates Luke sees that the face on the ground below him is his own. You see, the dark side of the Force clouds judgment, brings fear and instills selfishness and violence. To become a Jedi Master one must make the deep journey of self-discovery to overcome the darkness that lies within the heart of us all. The hardest journey is the journey inward.

Now come with me to another time long ago in a Galilee far, far away. It’s the beginning of the story of the public ministry of Jesus as told by another Luke, this time Luke the Evangelist. Luke has told us of the birth of Jesus, connecting the events with stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. He tells of the cosmic significance of this baby born in poverty.

In our gospel reading today Luke turns his attention to the adult Jesus, all grown up and ready to launch forth into the world. As I read this story this week I was struck by one thing in particular: the role of the Holy Spirit. I shouldn’t really be surprised because Luke plays a lot of attention to the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that the one who will follow John will baptize with the Holy Spirit. At the baptism of Jesus the Holy Spirit descends on him and we hear the voice of God proclaim, “You are my beloved child. I delight in you.”

Next Jesus, full of the Spirit, is led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil for forty days. Full of the Spirit, led by the Spirit, tempted by the devil. There is some deep theological depths to be explored here. Not exactly the warm fuzzies that we usually associate with the Holy Spirit. What’s going on here?

It’s pretty hard, maybe impossible, for us to read this story through anything other than the lens of Lent, but it’s helpful to keep in mind that when Luke wrote this, there was no Lent. That comes much later. Luke’s concern in this section of the gospel is twofold. First of all, he is interested in telling who Jesus is. The opening chapters make it pretty clear who Luke thinks Jesus is. He is the son of God, full of the Holy Spirit. The second concern is what that will look like or what will the son of God do? Keep in mind that in Luke’s day there was already a son of God. He sat on a throne in Rome and reigned in majesty, wealth and brute force. Luke’s temptation scene is all about identity. Who is this Jesus, Son of God, and what will he do? Will this Son of God be different?

Jesus is taken to the wilderness – barren, wild, unrelenting. Not much in the way of vegetation. There is no escape from the barrage of sun and wind. Dust and sand everywhere. So Jesus takes nothing with him, only the Holy Spirit.

In the form of bread, worship and divine protection, Jesus is offered one thing: power. But he is unwilling to take this power and wield it. Instead he knows, or is beginning to know, that his path will lead from this wilderness to another, even more brutal, wilderness. Because if he is the Son of God, his way forward will look much different than what is offered to him. In the very next scene in Luke’s gospel we see what that way will look like. Jesus returns from the wilderness, again full of the Spirit, and standing in a synagogue in Nazareth he applies the words of the prophet Isaiah to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The last words of Luke’s temptation scene foreshadow how Jesus’ ministry, his Kingdom, will bring him into conflict yet again with the powers of this world. “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” These dark powers will not tolerate the Son of God’s reign of mercy, liberation and healing.

In our time, in our galaxy, Lent is again here, or at least the invitation to enter into Lent. Jesus and his sojourn in the wilderness is the template for our forty day Lenten journey. Lent, though, is not just a season about overcoming temptation. Jesus is not meant to be an example of how to overcome temptation. I, for one, know that I would not stand against such temptation but jump at the chance for power and probably not use that power very well. But I do think that our Lenten journey is about identity. Who are we? What is important to us? How will we live?

Lent begins with a reminder of our limitations, our mortality and our brokenness. In short, Lent reminds us of our sin. We can be sure of this brokenness because of Jesus. He shows us how human life was meant to be lived. The life of Jesus is God’s plan for us. Remember that reign of mercy, liberation and healing? Add to that forgiveness, compassion and self-giving love and you start to get an idea of how far removed from this ideal we really are.

Lent tells us we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. It calls us to the wilderness of our own desires, urges and appetites: “In you must go.” It invites us to see the forces of this world, the big isms of our day – consumerism, materialism, individualism – for what they really are. They are dark forces that seek to make us forget who we really are. Lent is a gift, the gift of intentional time, time to see that we are more than our appetites, we are more than consumers, and that there is more to this life than the attainment of things, status and power. Lent reminds us that we will not live forever, but that we can truly live now, truly be who we are called to be.

The story of Jesus in the wilderness also reminds us that the same Holy Spirit, who filled Jesus to the brim, is in us too. Sure we are dust, cosmic dust, the stuff of long dead stars, but it is the Holy Spirit that animates this star dust, bringing it to life. It is that same Spirit that through baptism marks us as beloved children, God’s children, in whom God delights. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. It is the Spirit that leads us into, through and out of the wilderness to the glorious light of new life, to what we were always meant to be.

So let us enter into Lent, taking only what we have and finding who we truly are. In the name of God the creator, Jesus the redeemer and the Holy Spirit the sustainer of all life. Amen.

Rev. Robert is the Rector of St. Mark’s Church.



No, Seriously, What Would Jesus Drive?


Climate change, or global warming, poses an existential threat to the human family and all species with whom we share this planet. There is a broad scientific consensus that human activities are influencing the earth’s climate, predominantly through our production of greenhouse gases (GHGs). These emissions trap heat within the earth’s atmosphere, resulting in rising temperatures around the world with devastating consequences. Sea levels continue to rise as polar ice melts. Severe weather events such as heatwaves, hurricanes, floods and droughts are more frequent and intense. Elderly and other vulnerable people die during extreme heat waves. And climate-related poverty afflicts millions of people around the world, especially in the poorest countries.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of the world’s leading climate scientists, recently released a report in which they conclude that we have only twelve years to make the required changes to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. If we fail to do that, if we continue on our present path, a new class of refugee will be born – those fleeing countries that are no longer inhabitable. Furthermore, our children and grandchildren will have to survive in a climate significantly more hostile than that of today. Refusing to address the injustice of an environmental catastrophe of our own making hardly seems a Christian response. Yet, by and large, that seems to be our response, even though time is clearly running out to “sustain and renew the life of the earth”.

Addressing climate change means reducing GHG emissions which are overwhelmingly the result of our dependence on fossil fuels. Environment and Climate Change Canada tracks GHG emissions in Canada by sector, two of which account for more than half of our GHG emissions: oil and gas production (26%), and transportation (25%). While Canada’s population increased by about 29% between 1990 and 2016, our total GHG emissions during that time have increased by 70%, and emissions from these two particular sectors have increased by 70% and 42% respectively. Now, addressing emissions from oil and gas production has become a highly-politicized, hyper-partisan, rarely-rational debate in Canada, so dealing effectively with these emissions is largely a matter of political and corporate leadership (which has been sadly lacking). On the other hand, addressing emissions from the transportation sector is well within our sphere of influence as individual citizens.

Almost half of GHG emissions from the transportation sector (49%) come from passenger vehicles – the cars, pickups, vans and SUVs that we drive. While emissions from passenger cars declined by 14% between 1990 and 2016, emissions from pickups, vans and SUVs have more than doubled over that same period. This is a significant factor in the overall increase in GHG emissions from passenger vehicles since 1990 (34%). Statistics Canada data also indicates that an increase in the price of fuel corelates with a reduction in GHG emissions from passenger vehicles. Clearly, the choices we make have an effect on GHG emissions, the uncomfortable truth behind the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign.

Don and Marie Rowe, members of the Parish of St. Michael and All Angels in St. John’s, have made a conscious choice to reduce these emissions. In June of 2017 they purchased a 2013 Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. On a full charge the battery has a range of 50-60 Kilometres (40 Kilometers in cold weather). It takes eight hours to fully charge the battery, which they do by plugging their car with an extension cord at the end of the day. In the first twelve months they owned the vehicle they travelled 17,000 kilometres, and spent a total of $300 on gas and $356 in additional electricity costs – an average of $55 per month. Let that sink in for a moment. Not only have they intentionally chosen a vehicle that honours their baptismal vow to “safeguard the integrity of God’s creation”, their fuel costs are a mere $55 a month!

While we all may not be able to make the choice the Rowes have made, there are other emission-reducing choices available to us. We can opt for a smaller more fuel-efficient vehicle. We can be mindful of the amount of driving we do. We can choose other transportation alternatives such as walking, cycling or (gasp!) public transit. Christians should be leading the way in caring for our planet. Yet, almost two decades after the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign was launched, by and large, Christians still haven’t connected their transportation choices with their faith.

This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of Anglican Life as part of an ongoing series on creation care by our Associate Priest Father Mark Nichols.

The Symbolism of the Evangelists

the murals

First of all I would like to express my gratitude to the Rev. Rob, vestry, and to the whole of the St. Mark’s community for allowing me to do this project. It’s been a dream of mine for quite a while to do a big project like this.

When I first came here two and a half years ago, I saw the bare panels and immediately thought to myself, “Oh, they need painting!” I suggested to Rev. Rob, whom I knew already from teaching at Queen’s, to paint all six of them, but he suggested only these four, leaving the centre panels bare, and I immediately thought that it must be the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

But why did I paint these symbols? Of course, the man, the lion, the ox, and the eagle are the traditional symbols of the evangelists which have appeared in Christian art since the 5th century, and in Christian writing since the 2nd century. They are based in two scriptural texts – a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, and one from the Book of Revelation.

The passage in Ezekiel describes the prophet’s vision of the four “living creatures” drawing a sort of “throne-chariot” of God out of a fiery cloud. In that vision, each of the living creatures has four wings and four faces – the face of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. This image in Greek is referred to as the “tetramorph”, the creature with “four forms” or “four shapes”.

In the Book of Revelation, the four “living creatures” are now seen surrounding the throne of God in heaven. In that vision, they have six wings each, as do the seraphim who surround the throne, and they are covered in eyes front and back, but they have only one face each – one of a man, one a lion, one an ox, and one an eagle. So here, the tetramorph has been divided, but whenever the four appear together, they are still referred to collectively as the tetramorph. In Christian iconography, the image of Christ Pantocrator, Christ Ruler of the World, especially when shown enthroned, is often depicted with the divided tetramorph surrounding him.

But where do these symbols come from? Why did the prophets envision these very odd “living creatures” to begin with? One scholarly explanation that has been given is that the prophet Ezekiel lived in the 6th century among those who had been exiled during the Babylonian Exile. At that time, the mythology of the surrounding Babylonian and Assyrian cultures, with which he would have become familiar, was rife with images of wild creatures associated with various powers of nature – the ox with the earth, the roaring lion with fire, the eagle with the air and the sun (it was believed that eagles, for example, could look directly into the sun without blinking). To that extent, the vision of Ezekiel, far from denying the existence of such nature deities, would rather have suggested that any nature deities there were would be themselves in the service of the mighty God of Israel, pulling his throne-chariot.

It was not until the late 2nd century, however, that the four living creatures were associated with the four evangelists of the gospels. Irenaeus was the first to make this connection, although he associated the lion with John and the eagle with Mark. In fact, since Irenaeus’ time, there have been numerous interpretations of the tetramorph which link the creatures up in all different combinations with the evangelists. The combination which in time developed into the most widely accepted and today standard system was first proposed in the 4th century by Victorinus, and later supported by the highly influential figure Jerome. After that, towering figures such as Ambrose, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas supported this same standard combination. Although Augustine curiously interchanged the symbols for Mark and Matthew, and there have even been alternate combinations proposed, though always with these four symbols, right into the mid-20th century.

In any case, what you see here is the most widely-accepted combination in the tradition. Christian art beginning in the 5th century started to depict the evangelists, at first merely accompanied by each their own associated living creature (with the creature shown instructing and divinely inspiring the evangelist in his activity of writing his gospel), and then later as merged with, wholly symbolized by his associated creature. But what do these symbols mean? What has the traditional interpretation of the tetramorph-evangelist connection been?

In fact, over the centuries, even those who accepted this standard combination of the connection have given a wide variety of explanations for it. The most enduring ones have related to six basic considerations: 1) how each gospel begins; 2) Christ’s main quality as emphasized in each gospel; 3) the key qualities of the creature associated with each gospel; 4)the natural element associated with each creature; 5) the virtues necessary for salvation which are displayed by Christ in each gospel; and 6) the specific Christian doctrine as suggested in each gospel by all these other factors.

panels talk

Now obviously I couldn’t incorporate all of this symbolism into the murals when I painted them. But I did get some reference to the natural elements into them, in the attempt to evoke some of the natural scenery of the Newfoundland landscape (coast, mountainous west coast, rolling fields, the sun). Reverend Rob said, for example, that the eagle reminds him of the Torngat Mountains. I was telling this to Cheryl Faseruk, and she said that if I really wanted it to be about Newfoundland, then I should have portrayed the eagle as a seagull, the ox as a moose, the lion as a big Newfoundland dog, and the man as a mummer. Now I wouldn’t so much necessarily think of mummering as the ideal of human perfection. But when you think about it, mummers are disguised, and people must guess their true identities. Well, in the same sort of way, our true identities as perfect, loving, welcoming, creative, immortal children of God lie still deep within us, and these outer identities are only symbols and must, as well as they can, be transformed, and help us make our way through to our true perfection within.

So I finish again with gratitude to St. Mark’s for being a church and a family which so dearly values the creative contributions made by its members, and which supports all of us in, little by little, discovering and revealing to one another always a little bit more of our own true, creative identities. May we always carve out, with God’s help, that welcoming space within our hearts to make room for what others have to offer of themselves to us. For sometimes the greatest gift that you can give to another person is an empty space within yourself to receive that which the other has to give of him- or herself to you.


Creation Care in a Throwaway Culture

seven rs

“The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth…once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”

– Pope Francis, Laudato Si

These rather harsh words from Laudato Si come to mind every time I go for a walk in my neighbourhood. Actually, wherever I’ve travelled in this province I’ve always been taken aback by the incredible amount of litter I see. Much of it is a result of inadequately-secured trashcans and dumpsters or uncovered garbage bags. Much of it has simply been tossed by individuals with no moral qualms about treating our land as a trash heap. Regardless of its source, litter is more than a thoughtless desecration of the earth entrusted to our care. It is an outward and visible sign of a deeper brokenness that afflicts much of the human family – our unwillingness to accept full and personal responsibility for the waste we create. This brokenness goes much deeper than failing to ensure the waste we create winds up in our municipal landfill and not in our soil, forests and waterways. Indeed, addressing it requires an intentional decision to create the smallest amount of waste possible and finding tangible ways to live out that decision.

We have become much more intentional about recycling as a means of reducing the waste we create. While this is a step in the right direction, it should be seen as a least-worst option. First of all, just because something is “recyclable” doesn’t mean it will be accepted by municipal recycling programs. Often, there is no viable market for a particular “recyclable”; consequently, such items wind up in the landfill. There are also times when recycling is actually down-cycling. This is especially true of plastics. While glass, steel and aluminum can be recycled repeatedly, plastics can only be recycled a few times, and even then as a lower-value product. That plastic water bottle you recycled does not become a new water bottle. So, there are times when recycling simply delays waste entering the waste stream.

A better way to reduce waste is to reuse items, finding new uses for items that no longer serve their original purpose and repairing items that can still serve their original purpose. We can also re-gift items we no longer need by giving them to someone else who can use them (Home Again Furniture Bank comes to mind). As long as there is a use for something it shouldn’t wind up in the waste stream. However, much of what we consume today is disposable, difficult to use in another way, and cost-prohibitive to repair (intentionally so, to get us to consume more). Taking creation care seriously demands that we become thoughtful – indeed, reluctant – consumers.

When it comes down to it, the most effective way to care for creation is to reduce the waste we create in the first place. If we refuse to buy, accept or otherwise consume something we really don’t need, that something will not enter the waste stream. If we gave as much consideration to the impact a purchase will have on our planet as to the impact it will have on our wallet, a lot less would enter our waste stream. “Reduce” is the first of the three R’s for good reason.

Quite frankly, our planet cannot sustain the debauchery of unbridled consumerism that plagues our society. In this province we produce more than sixteen hundred pounds of waste per person annually. If there ever was a time to accept full and personal responsibility for the waste we create, it is now. This requires that we walk a path of counter-cultural intentionality. So, too, does our baptismal covenant.

Father Mark Nichols is the Associate Priest of St. Mark’s.

Originally published in the January 2019 issue of Anglican Life.

How the Light Gets In: A Sermon for The Feast of Epiphany

epiphany fireworks

It’s a safe bet that you spent New Year’s Eve staring up into the night sky, mouth gaping open, oohing and aweing over some type of fireworks display. Maybe it was in a friend’s backyard or at a municipal display like we do here at Quidi Vidi Lake. Perhaps you looked at fireworks on television in the comfort of your own home. One of my favourite memories of growing up in rural Newfoundland, where there was nary a firework to be seen, was sitting and watching fireworks on NTV waiting for the name of my hometown to scroll across the bottom of the screen. When it did I was filled with a sense of jubilation equal to the jubilation felt at the stroke of midnight that launches the New Year.

When I had kids of my own it became our tradition to pile into the car on New Year’s Eve and head down to park on the side of the road on Signal Hill overlooking the lake where the city’s fireworks would be set off. This vantage point gave us a panoramic view not only of the fireworks but the entire city. One year there must have been some kind of malfunction in the pyrotechnics because only one firework illuminated the sky that night at midnight. But as we sat there waiting for the show to continue our attention turned to the city laid out before us. The whole city, actually as far as the eye could see, from town out to Mount Pearl, and towards the Northeast in Torbay and beyond, had erupted in fireworks. We sat there in silence just watching. It was a truly beautiful sight.

But why do we do this? Why fireworks on New Year’s Eve? Our ancestors have been using noise and light to welcome the New Year for millennia. The beating of drums, firing of canons and guns, the ringing of bells, the lighting of candles and fires were all meant to chase away evil spirits and give rise to a prosperous and healthy beginning to the New Year. Around 2000 years ago the Chinese invented fireworks and used them as part of New Year’s celebrations to do just that, to scare away evil spirits and to dispel the darkness. The tradition quickly spread to the West from the wise people of the Far East.

Actually, light overcoming darkness is one of the primal stories of the human experience. It’s no accident, then, that this light shining in the darkness gets adopted by the early church. It was already there in the Judaism and Paganism of the day. What we now celebrate as Christmas came to be some 300 years after the death of Christ and took the place of Pagan winter solstice celebrations. Celebrations of the dispelling of darkness at the rebirth of the sun at the solstice now became worship of the Son and the dispelling of the darkness that engulfs our hearts and the world.

Our gospel reading today has a lot to do with that tradition. It is the reading associated with the Feast of Epiphany, the showing or shining forth, of Jesus to the Gentiles. In this story we are told how the Magi, the scholars, priests and scientists of their day, came from their home in modern day Iraq or Iran to worship the newborn Jesus. They were led by a star, or a comet, or some other celestial phenomenon. These foreign stargazers were overcome with joy when they found the birthplace of Jesus and offered their now famous gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. Except for the gold these are not the most practical gifts for a newborn baby. The scene is the stuff of Christmas cards and songs, the stuff of classic art and the stuff of children’s pageants the world over.

But the details of the story are scant. Why come all this way for Jesus? What is about him that had drawn them here to this nowhere town to the birth of just another peasant baby? Why worship him? The text doesn’t really say why, but the visit of the Magi to Jesus does fit with the bigger themes of Matthew and the New Testament. Jesus is the light coming into the darkness of this world. The Magi, the Gentile Magi, are drawn to this light, just as the Hebrew Scriptures said that the Gentile nations would be drawn to the true messiah. Jesus is the light of the world, beyond religious, national and cultural borders. And as much as the darkness tries to extinguish this light, the light still shines.

In common, everyday language what we are talking about here is hope. Hope that things will be better. That this unlikely baby king messiah, born to parents of low station, could be the kind of king that could make the world right, could make us right, make us better. It is a hope that what they are witnessing is a turning point for the human family. That maybe, just maybe, we will get our act together and be the kind of people that countless prophets and sages through the ages have told us we could be. Hope that we will be able to overcome the darkness of fear that gives rise to the divisions that separate us from each other in hatred, violence and oppression. All of this in a baby born in light, the pure possibility of new life, of new hope.

Which takes me back to our fireworks. That night on the side of Signal Hill and again this New Year’s Eve while looking out my living room window across Airport Heights toward Signal Hill, I was struck by the sight of a city erupting in fiery celebration. I couldn’t help but think of the people setting off those fireworks and those looking on. What was going through their minds? People who are struggling to make ends meet. People whose prospects look bleak. People whose relationships are falling apart. People for whom the darkness is not just the absence of sunlight but the lack of any hope. I imagine that their thoughts were not that different than that of their ancient ancestors. That the fireworks were an offering of sound and light, not to ward off evil spirits, but as a spark of hope that maybe this year will be better, that they will be better.

But we know that it will take more than some bright fireworks to make things better, to do anything to improve the human condition. We need a brighter light, something or someone to illuminate the way. In the Christian tradition that’s just what Jesus is: the light of the world. Just as Jesus was the spark of hope for the Magi, the early Christians and countless number of people who have followed him ever since, so he is for our world today. The light that Jesus shines into the world is the light of humility, forgiveness, and selfless, sacrificial love. We trust that his way is the right way and strive to live it out. That’s called faith.

Today on the Feast of the Epiphany we celebrate baptism, as do Christians around the world. We welcome Amy Susan to the Christian family. We acknowledge her identity as Christ’s own, forever. We give her the light of Christ that will guide, nourish and sustain her growth into the full stature of Jesus. In doing so we acknowledge that the light of Christ only really comes into the world through us. It comes as we lovingly and gently pass on the light that was lovingly and gently passed to us. It comes through people, faith communities that strive to care for each and the world, who work for justice and peace, who love their neighbours as themselves. So may we do this for Amy Susan and for the whole world. May we be a sign of hope, a beacon of light, in a dark and scary world. And may we do this together.

In the name of God who is creator, redeemer and sustainer of all life. Amen.

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s in St. John’s, NL.






We Wish You A Fearless Christmas: A Sermon for Christmas Eve/Day

Shepherds and Angels
The Angels Appearing to the Shepherds – William Blake

First off, it’s so great to have you all hear. You really do look beautiful!. It’s great to have this opportunity for us to be together to chat. That’s one of the things that I love about Christmas. It’s a time of coming together. A time of coming together with those who are nearest and dearest to us and maybe some who we are iffy about (You know what I’m talking about!). But you know what, I believe that good things happen when people get together whether it’s around the Christmas tree, the dinner table or the communion table. So again, I’m so glad you’re here.

But we have some important business to get to, so I’m just going to get right down to it. What the heck is going on out there? The whole world seems to have lost its mind. These are scary days indeed. He who shall not be named is wreaking havoc south of the border. There’s a renewed threat of global nuclear war. Europe is falling apart. The economy, and capitalism along with it, seem to be disintegrating before our very eyes. It’s open season for racism, xenophobia, misogyny and homophobia. We can’t seem to talk to each other anymore without it descending into a black hole of insults and ugliness. Don’t get me started on climate change and our seeming unwillingness to collectively do something, anything, about it. It’s hard not to think that we are heading for a crisis. Yes it’s a scary world that we live in.

We live in an age of fear. Maybe we always did but it seems in our technological, mass communications, global civilization fear is a little more palpable. Fear of the other, the refugee, the unknown leads to hate, closing us off from each other. Fear of missing out, of changing our way of living to avert climate catastrophe leads us to continue down our path of consumerism and materialism. Fear of appearing weak leads to posturing and name calling, which is the path to conflict, violence and war. Fear is at the root of so much of what threatens us as the human family.

Fear is not just out there either. Fear is in here too. In this room, in our hearts. We all come here, gather here, haunted by fear. Fear of being alone. Fear of not making ends meet. Fear of starting over from scratch. Fear that all of this is pointless, meaningless. Fear that you are not enough, no matter how hard you try. Fear of the uncertainty of life. It’s all rather anxiety inducing. If our ancestors were consumed by a fear of death, perhaps we have evolved to now be consumed by a fear of living.

So I think it’s only natural that our ears perk up when we hear the Angels say to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid.” Actually this is a recurring theme in Luke’s birth narrative. Angelic visitors repeat this phrase in their appearances to Zechariah and Mary. In Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus he too uses this phrase. The angel says to Joseph, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Matthew also tells us that King Herod is overtaken by fear at the news of the birth of Jesus, which causes him to react in violence toward the innocent children of Galilee. Jesus eight times in the Gospels admonishes hearers to not be afraid, which is just a fraction of the 365 total references to “Fear not.” The scripture writers get the power of fear.

What strikes me about these angelic visitations, though, is just how easily the hearers take to heart the admonishing to not be afraid. The angels say don’t be afraid and they seem to not be afraid anymore. Zechariah prophecies, Mary accepts the role of god-bearer and the shepherds head off into the night to find the baby messiah. What kind of beings are these angels that they hold such persuasive powers? Is it their radiant appearance? Is it their booming, commanding voices? Do they possess some hypnotic power that subdues their hearers, invoking robotic submission?

The answer might be found in another part of the New Testament written some thirty years later. The writer of the first letter of John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Along with Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, I believe that whatever these angelic beings are, whatever they look like, they are first and foremost beings of love with a message of love that drives out fear. Perhaps their words are less command or spell and more invitation. An invitation that there is more to the world than what we see and know. An invitation to a world where we are not paralyzed by fear but inspired by love. A world where God uses an old married couple, a teenaged mom, some smelly shepherds, and a carpenter step-dad to pave the way for salvation. A world where tyrants shake in their boots at the news of the birth of a baby and the upending of their long held oppressive regimes. A world where vulnerability not power, peace not violence, and forgiveness not retribution bring healing, salvation and liberation.

Come to think of it isn’t that the whole point of the Christmas story. Jesus, the word made flesh, the son of God, God in the flesh, coming among us in humility, vulnerability and humanity. Come to show us God, show us what God is like. Come to show us what true humanity looks like. And what God is and what humanity is called to is love. God is love and Jesus is the embodiment of that love. Jesus shows us an alternative way of living together as the human family. And that way is the way of love.

In love is our beginning and our end. In love we live and move and have our being. Love is the antidote to the fear that plagues our world, plagues our hearts. Not because it commands but because it invites, cajoles, coaxes and calls us to embrace the possibility of what seems impossible. That impossibility is that the world could ever be any different than it has always been. During the Advent Season we lit the candles of hope, peace, joy and love. Yes we do this as an act of preparation but I think we also do this as an act of participation. We light these candles to acknowledge our own role in dispelling the darkness of fear in our world. It is in our love, kindled in Jesus, that hope, peace and joy come into the world; that God’s kingdom comes into the world.

The great American theologian Bruce “the Boss” Springsteen in his song Cautious Man, tells a story of a man who has the word love tattooed on one hand and fear on the other. He sings that the man was never really sure of which one controlled his destiny. His life marked by a constant struggle between choosing fear and choosing love. As we leave this place may we choose love over fear. And may the words of the angels resonate in our hearts: “Don’t be afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” May we live fearlessly, may we love fearlessly. May we not only imagine a better, more loving world, but may we love a new world into being. And may we do this together …

+In the name of God who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of life. Amen

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s.