When my now-teenage cousin was little, for a little while there, we all rued the day we taught her to turn on the lights. From that day forward, every time she entered a room, she turned the lights on. It sounds cute, I know. Until you’re in the middle of watching a movie or taking a long winter’s nap when suddenly the overhead fluorescent lights in my parents’ living room come on.
During the winters here in New England, I’ve noticed that I’m not all that different than that toddler version of my cousin. I wake up just after sunup most mornings in the winter, turn on the lights, put a morning news podcast in my ears, and go down stairs and turn on light by light ending, during Advent and Christmastide, with my Christmas tree.
The lights go out as the light outside gets gradually brighter, but in a few hours, I go through the same routine: light on, light on, light on.
Here in the dead of winter, we long for light. We adults watch the light wane at 2PM. We take Vitamin D and invest in full spectrum lamps.
I never understood before moving here why every winter photo in New England looks like it was taken at dusk: because it’s essentially dusk all day. Ever since December 21, we’ve been counting every extra minute of light.
It makes sense, then, that our ancestors in the Church would have us begin a season of light just as we’re noticing the sunlight grow a little brighter each day. In the dead dark of winter, the Church starts speaking in earnest about light, starting with that star the magi followed.
Shine a little light.
The season of light kicks off with a little story about how people from across the known world — sorcerers or kings, doesn’t matter, point is, they weren’t Jews — but they still found Jesus and were welcomed into his house by Mary and Joseph.
We don’t know who the magi were, really. We don’t know how many there were. (I know, we say three, there are three in your creche — but Matthew doesn’t actually give us a number.) Truth be told, we’re not entirely sure what gender they were. All we get from Matthew is magi, which some folks translate “wise men,” because we all got assumptions, but it most directly translates to “magician.”
I need to pause here to say how crazy it is that after some fundamentalist-types today make quite a fuss of condemning such people — fortunetellers, magicians, Harry Potter — they are welcomed by the Holy Family.
By this point, you have to think that Mary was maybe almost used to random people showing up to see her young son. The night he was born, random laborers, shepherds, showed up. Now it’s likely a year or two or three later, and these foreign magi show up. Matthew doesn’t tell us about her reaction, but from both the culture and the rest of the story, we can infer that Joseph and Mary welcomed them right in. Ancient Middle Eastern culture (and current, in fact) places a high level of value on hospitality. If a guest shows up at your door, you are expected to welcome and feed and house them.
The magi follow the light, and they find light and welcome with Mary and Joseph and their little son.
The magi do, in fact, spend the night there, where they have a dream telling them not to return to Herod. Mary and Joseph shelter them, keep them safe, and send them on their way.
And so it’s also no wonder that our ancestors in faith determined that this would be the day that we bless chalk to bless our homes for the new year, praying that we may in joy welcome guests from near and far into our homes this year.
Being a guest and welcoming guests — you know that hospitality is part of making it through the winter, too. Most of us welcome guests aplenty into our homes: friends, family, and other loved ones may drop by just to chat or to stay for a few days. Welcoming a guest or being one yourself is a bit like turning on a light in winter. Rooms are cozier with company. Together, we shed the light of hospitality.
January sixth, the end of Christmas, when we remember how the magicians from far away followed a star to meet a baby Savior.
These days, there usually aren’t any new bright stars in the sky. Epiphany is just a holiday of light and hospitality in the dead of winter. Light and hospitality – common things that mean everything. Common things that mean everything are what church is made of. Light, hospitality, bread, wine, water, words, love.
We think of Epiphanies as these super rare moments when everything seems crystal clear. This year, I’ve been thinking maybe Epiphany as a holiday isn’t so uncommon and isn’t so specific.
Light and hospitality. Bread and grapes. Love. Greenery. The familiar and the cozy.
These are what Epiphany is about.
Tradition holds that tonight is the night we’re supposed to take down all our decorations and bless our homes for the new year. Away goes the tree, away go the lights, away goes the wreath.
As for me — I’m leaving up just one strand of greenery with simple white lights to remind me to shed a little light on others as the light returns to us in the sky, day by day, as winter rolls on. Because the winter will be cold, but spring is coming.
So go ahead and turn on all the lights as we wait together for winter to end. And let’s come to the table where all are welcomed with hospitality and love, because all are family. Even if you don’t welcome many guests these days, you can always be a guest here.
Turn all the lights on and welcome all the guests and crank the music up loud. Epiphany is here, and the light is already returning. Amen.