Year B Lent 5: love with the lights on

I don’t know how many of you read the Revd Canon Percy Grant’s Lenten reflection yesterday. She wrote about the universal experience of childhood – or not even only of the young; the experience of waking in the half-night and the quarter-light, to shadows backlit by darkness to represent to us our deepest fears, our monsters, our pursuers. She remembers, in a moment of that frank bravery of which the young are capable, flicking on the light to catch it in its act of being a cardigan slung across the shoulders of some furniture.

I recommend that you hunt down and read Percy’s words for yourself, but in the final analysis, my take away was the identification of a mutually confessional community with the turning on of the light; the notion of the opening up of ourselves and our sin and our salvation to one another as that which illuminates our lives, drives out fear, lets the truth shine through in comfort.

Jeremiah looks forward out of the darkness of his days in exile to the days of the new covenant, when all is so illumined by the light of the Lord that “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

And Jesus appeared in Galilee, and by the Jordan, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand, has drawn near.” The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. But I do not think that we are yet at the point of Jeremiah’s paradise where we no longer need one another to say to each other, ‘Know the Lord;’ where we no longer need to share our faith to be sure of it; where we no longer need the encouragement of others to help us to find our way to Christ, and to the community of God.

In fact, isn’t that the very heart of the Incarnation God’s acknowledgement of our need for flesh to flesh contact, community, witness? The prophets were one thing; messengers of God, acknowledged and recognized for their access and ability to pray and to preach God’s truth. But Jesus was something else; the very embodiment of God’s Word to us, God’s love for us, God’s mercy to us, God’s solidarity with us. The high holy days of Christmas and Easter are so important to us because they commemorate God’s participation in the unique experiences suffered by all of humankind: birth and death, and whatever is beyond it. By their witness, we are assured, that God knows us as well as anyone could, and knowing that, God recognizes that it takes one to know one; takes one of us to know one of us truly.

Even at the beginning, in the creation stories, God knew that we needed one another: “It is not good for the man to be alone,” God said, even though Adam was never alone, with God walking beside him in the garden. Yet God knows our need for one another.

So while Jeremiah might be right that it is open to all to know God, from the least of us to the greatest, still we, with the Greeks, tend rather to sidle up to one another and ask to be introduced, if we are bold enough; or wait an eternity on the sidelines, looking for a break into the conversation, if we are not.

I think that perhaps the reason that the Greeks chose Philip to approach is that he wasn’t himself over-confident, over-familiar with the centre of attention. The first thing that Philip did when Jesus called him was to go and get his friend Nathaneal, for back-up and for a buffer. It worked: Jesus’ conversation with Nathaneal, as recorded, is much longer than anything he got out of Philip. And now, approached by the Greeks, he runs to get Andrew, for back-up and for buffering, so that, even now, he doesn’t have to do the introductions by himself; even now, in the final stretch, Philip is still a little shy. He needs his friends, his back-up, his buffer, his security blanket, his night light.

I think that what Philip might have been forgetting was just how much more afraid, nervous, shy, anxious, excited, adrenalin-driven those Greeks must have been! How long had it taken them to pluck up the courage to speak? How many of the disciples afterwards asked, “Why had none of us ever invited them in before, to meet Jesus?”

It would, after all, have been the Christian thing to do.

But I get it. It’s a big decision, to turn on the light, invite someone into your face, into your space, into your truth, your way, your life.

When I was seven, there was a new girl in our class, Sally Brannigan. I still remember the exact moment, sitting at my desk with Charlotte as usual, doing sums, about ten minutes till playtime, when I decided that when the break came, I would say “hello” to Sally. Just that. Simply say, “Hello.” It was – you will laugh at me – but it was a huge decision, the choice to go first, to flick on the light and find out what was lurking in the shadows, for good or for evil. It was a momentous decision, for a seven-year-old; because, of course, she wasn’t Sally Brannigan yet, this new girl, come to change everything, the size of the class, the moments divided between one more of us, the smiles stretched one person further to go around. It was a huge risk, to turn on the light, acknowledge her presence, and the cataclysm of jealousy, change, friends fired and freed up, that she might bring behind her. It was, honestly, a bold move, plant my feet before her, look her in the eye and say, “hello.”

I was quite pleased with myself afterwards.

But like the Greeks, like Philip, I hadn’t even begun to consider how much easier it was for me to reach out, with my friends behind me and my teacher looking on approvingly; I hadn’t even begun to consider how much harder it would have been for Sally, left to her own devices. I only knew that someone had to go first, and for once, miraculously, I thought it might as well be me. Here I was; send me.

In two weeks’ time, it will be Easter. This place will greet people it hasn’t seen in a while, maybe some who are brand new. They are the Greeks, looking for someone to introduce them to Jesus, because no matter what Jeremiah says, we still need back-up, a buffer. They are Sally Brannigan, wondering what this life will be, what her place will be in this community, whether, in fact, we will make room for her at the table. They are Philip, and Andrew, best friends of Jesus already, still leaning on one another.

Each of them will see the shadows of this place in their own way.

Which of us will be brave enough to flick on the lights, show our faces, our true form, undisguised? We don’t need to be Jesus or Jeremiah. We don’t even need to be Andrew or Nathaneal. For some, it will be just as well to find us Philip, hanging on the edges, demonstrating by our own deference our fellow-feeling, our understanding of the threat and the shelter of the shadows. But just this once, Philip, don’t leave them hanging there. Be brave. Be bold. Throw on the lights and dazzle them with your smile.

Because we know that we can all know God in our own way, from the least to the greatest. And still, we have come to this community, because, God knows, we need one another. We need faith Incarnate. And we are the inheritors of that glorious Incarnation, God made manifest, Christ’s Body in the world, offered for the sake of all; love with the lights on.


About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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