Wednesday, March 14, 2012

“Again, Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world.’” (Jn. 8:12)

Homily at Evensong given St. Mark's Episcopal Church,
Berkeley, California February 2011...
Jan Robitscher

Year 1: Epiphany VI                                                                                                                
Jan Robitscher
St. Mark’s Church
February 13, 2011

                Psalm 19                                                                                                                 
                Isaiah 62:6-12                                                                                                         
                John 8: 12-19                                                                                                         

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.        

So, here we are, in the midst of the service of Evensong, as the sun is setting, singing God’s praises, in the middle of the Season of the Epiphany--or “showing forth” of God in Christ--the Season of Light.

But in a way, it would be hard  to tell, as we are surrounded by electric lights that almost obliterate the difference between day and night. And what of all those candles? Are they not superfluous? And yet we do watch the sky darken and catch the light mediated by the stained glass and we must admit that our world is often a pretty dark and scary place,  especially at night. Sometimes all the lights of our streets and cities--and even here--only mask our anxiety. Maybe we really are afraid of the dark. Maybe we really are comforted by those candles. Maybe they remind us that we do need Jesus to be our light. But how does this happen and what does Jesus mean anyway claiming himself to be “the light of the world”? And what does this mean for us?

I think the way in might be through the words of the Phos Hilaron, the hymn “O Gracious Light” that we sang just a few moments ago. It dates from at least the 3rd century and is among the oldest of Christian hymns in continuous use.  

Basil the Great (d. A.D. 379) speaks of this hymn as so ancient that no one knows its author. (The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Vol. Two, p. 24)  It was sung as the lamps were lit (and still is in Orthodox Vespers--you can see it and hear it on YouTube). Let’s look at the words again from the Book of Common Prayer (p, 64):

            Said:                O Gracious Light.

                                                Pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven.

                                                O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Stained glass, St Mark's
It is here that we find the very claim Jesus makes of himself in our Gospel reading: I AM the light of the world. The hymn-prayer  addresses Jesus: Phos hilaron--O gracious light, quite literally, O happy--O hilarious light--Jesus, the Light that is the source of our joy and our peace as night approaches. Jesus, the merciful and redeeming light, not only of the People Israel, but of the whole world. Jesus, the Light that the darkness cannot overcome.               

                                    Now as we come to the setting of the sun,

                                                and our eyes behold the vesper light,

                                                we sing thy praises, O God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It is in this second verse that we find the purpose of all these lights and especially all the candles we see. They remind us, who have not seen Jesus in the flesh, that we are surrounded by God in Trinity of Persons and unity of being. Jesus is right here. Knowing this, we will pray for protection through the coming night.

And the final verse:

                                    Thou art worthy at all times

                                                to be praised by happy voices,

                                                O Son of God, O giver of life,

                                                and to be glorified through all the worlds.

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