For all the anticipation, preparation and waiting, Christmas seems to end quickly. The days after Christmas can feel like an abrupt shift. We know that the Christmas season lasts for 12 days leading up to Epiphany on January 6, but liturgical technicalities aside, on December 26 there is for many of us some falling action, waning energy, melting candles, disappearing leftovers, and air releasing from our party balloons.
The same must have been true that first Christmas. The great preacher Peter Gomes once said, “It is very difficult to tear ourselves away from Bethlehem.” But continuing, Gomes reminds, “There is a time to lay down one’s cares and duties and run to Bethlehem and the manger, a time to follow the star . . . a time to flee for refuge from the troubles of the world. There is also a time to return, to begin where we left off . . . for we have come from an encounter with the world of the possible in the midst of the impossible. We have seen God and survived to tell the tale, moving about not knowing that our faces shine with the encounter, bearing the mark of the encounter forever and marveling in the darkest night of the soul at that wondrous star-filled night”.
There is no moment at First Baptist Greensboro that I love any more than Christmas Eve in our sanctuary, as each person in the full room lights a small candle and the light is passed until the darkened room fills with the most stunning corporate light. From my vantage point during the closing benediction, I can see what the rest of you can’t – each face is shining. Every face is illuminated, and literally shines from what we have passed amongst ourselves and beheld together. I raise my hands in blessing, but I am the one who is blessed by what I see – faces shining from our encounter with Christ.
The Bible says that’s what happens when people encounter God: their faces shine. When Moses met God on Mount Sinai and came back down, he even frightened everyone because of the glow in his face. Whether he could see it or not, his encounter with God made his face shine. “Arise, shine, your light has come,” the prophet Isaiah wrote to exiled people living amidst the darkness. “God is about to do a new thing. There’s light in the darkness. But you can’t just sit here. Arise. Stand up. Move forward. There is light in your darkness, and it’s time for you to shine.”
That is the message of Epiphany – the time after Christmas. It commemorates the journey of those first star followers – the Magi – who came from afar to see what they had never seen before. They encountered, in Gomes’ words, “the possible amidst the impossible.” It must have been tempting to stay and bask in the light. But at some point, gifts must be left, the child must be entrusted to his parents, and those who have come to see Christ must return. But like those Magi, we don’t return the same way. We return by another road. A road lit by the very light of Christ, which shines in the faces of all who have seen a star.
In these last days of Christmas, leading up to Epiphany on January 6, let us live as those who have seen what is possible, followed what was once far off, and who now shine with the encounter. We have so many opportunities to do just that as a community of faith as this year begins, and this newsletter is full of places for us to make known the light of Christ.
In her book, When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd shares about how when her daughter was small, she was given the somewhat dubious part of the Bethlehem star in the Christmas pageant. She burst through the door in her costume enthusiastically, with tinsel draped over her like a sandwich board. “What exactly will you be doing in the play?” her mother asked. “Not much. I just stand there and shine,” her daughter answered.
As we return from Bethlehem and that star, let us remember to do the same – Arise, stand, move forward, and shine.