The candles have been blessed and lit, 4 Epiphany (B) – 2009

February 1, 2009

(RCL) Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

“If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.”

Tomorrow, February second, is a cross-quarter day, more or less.

Never heard of it? Well, you are probably not alone. A cross-quarter day is the mid-point between a solstice and an equinox, the halfway point of a calendar season. It means we are nearly halfway through winter. And here you thought tomorrow was just Groundhog Day!

February second might not amount to much in Florida or Southern California, but in many parts of our country, making it halfway through winter is a big deal. Just ask any groundhog.

A cross-quarter day means, in effect, the gradual return of light and warmth; and in ancient times, this was worth celebrating. Pagan and Celtic rituals often included the burning of great fires around this time of year to welcome back the sun from its winter sabbatical. People could once again begin thinking about spring planting and summer growth.

The Church, without missing a beat, appropriated the concept and designated the winter cross-quarter day as the day to celebrate the gradual return of the sun’s light by blessing and lighting candles. It became known as the Feast of Candlemas, and it is celebrated in many of our churches, reminding us that Christ is the light who brings salvation and the warmth of God’s love.

Still today, the gradual shift from winter to spring provides an apt metaphor for our own spiritual journey from dark to light, from pagan to Christian, from mundane to sublime.

The Book of Deuteronomy, from which our first reading today is taken, is also about journey and transformation. As Bernard Levinson writes in his New Oxford Annotated Bible commentary, “Deuteronomy directly addresses the problem of the historical distance between past and present.”

The Book of Deuteronomy also addresses the distance between the exile in Egypt and life in the Promised Land. Passing through Moab on virtually the last leg of their long and arduous Exodus journey, the people of Israel became tired and increasingly irritable. They were ready to settle down. And so they said as one, “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.”

The “great fire,” of course, is not the fire of our pagan ancestors lighted to ward off the evil spirits, but the fire of Mount Horeb – or “Sinai” as it is more frequently called – the sign of the Lord’s manifestation in the wilderness. Like a beacon in the night, the fire of Horeb for years brought reassurance that the Lord is still with his people, even in exile.

But now that time of journey and exile was coming to an end. Change was at hand.

As the people were about to enter the land given to them, the Lord promised a prophet who would speak his words with authenticity and authority after Moses was gone. “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet who shall speak … everything that I command,” said the Lord.

The people would not die in Moab. But neither would Moses complete with them the journey to the Promised Land. It was time for new leadership.

Christ is for us Christians the prophet who now speaks “with authority,” as we are told in our gospel account today. He brings light and life to our cold world. As the Israelites in the wilderness longed to settle in the Promised Land, so we await the coming of the Lord’s kingdom. The Exodus passage is for us the way or “path,” as the earliest followers of Christ called their newfound faith.

For Christians, transformation must become a way of life. Christ has changed everything. He has brought reconciliation and hope to a world darkened by the consequences of sin and death.

This world’s transitions and vagaries are not optional. They come as standard equipment on the engine of human life – as does the cross itself. Only in the cross of Christ is life possible at all. It gives a whole new dimension of meaning to the term “cross-quarter day.” Like all living things, we turn to the light – to Christ, the light of the world – to fend off our fears and overcome our despair.

The candles have been blessed and lit. We in turn must now become beacons of Christ’s love for our worried and fretful world.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is interim rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Del Mar, California.

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