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.