A blessed feast of Epiphany to you all! While this feast doesn’t really register much with most of us today, it was, historically, the second most important feast of the Christian year, after only Easter. Its original meaning was as a typical mid-winter celebration of light, using the lengthening days as a symbol of divine revelation through Christ. The words of the prophet Isaiah perfectly capture this sensibility: Arise! Shine! Your light has come! The glory of the LORD has risen upon you! (60.1)
If you’re a long-time reader, you’ll know that our tradition’s use of light as a symbol for knowing God — for goodness, truth, and beauty — is one that I love (even as I recognize it needs to be tempered by an appreciation of darkness). But there’s a tension here when we try to apply it. For as much as we may rightly want to celebrate the coming of the light, to rise up and shine brightly with the divine fire in the world, it remains that the world continues to be a very dark place, where, more often than not, injustice and violence prevail.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by this tension and become dispirited and allow that light of God to be snuffed out. So what can we do? Let’s turn to the Gospels and see what Jesus had to say about this.
In the Sermon on the Mount — to which we will return in a few weeks — Jesus says:
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5.14-16)
Here Jesus commands his followers to ‘shine’ with God’s light for everyone to see. He uses the image of a town on a distant hill — even the smallest lights can be seen in the darkness. (As I write this it’s 6:00 am on a midwinter morning; looking out my window I can see the lights from individual apartments in buildings over two kilometres away from me. This is what Jesus is getting at.) This teaching directly follows another analogy: “You are the salt of the earth”. What does salt do? Salt, in small quantities, enhances the flavours already present in a dish. It doesn’t take much to make a big difference. You can see where this is going. But the teaching is made even clearer in a third analogy: yeast in a batch of dough: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough” (Matthew 13.33). A small amount of yeast can grow and leaven a lot of bread, bringing lightness, texture, and life to what would otherwise be flat and rather lifeless.
The point of all this is that it doesn’t take much to make a difference. A small light can be seen from far away. A pinch of salt can make a stew delicious. A few grains of yeast can breathe life into a lot of dough. As the old kids song says, “It only takes a spark to get a fire of going.” Cheesy as it sounds, it’s true. In God’s Kingdom of small beginnings, we aren’t expected to do the biggest or best. We aren’t expected to maximize our efforts. (It’s great if we can, but that’s not the point.) There is no way we can change the whole world. We cannot singlehandedly remake centuries-old systems of power, or end poverty or hunger, or ‘fix’ climate change. This can be a tremendous source of anxiety. Shonu Shamdasani, a historian of psychology, has referred to many of us today as having an “Atlas complex” — as though we are carrying the weight of the whole world on our shoulders. But the good news is no one expects us to do this.
All we are expected to do — all we can do — is something. Anything.
And that, I think, is the key to shining brightly in a dark world. Just be a lamp shining in a far-away window. Just be that pinch of salt in the stew of your family or workplace or community. Just be the teaspoon of yeast in your friend group and voting booth. A little goodness can go a long way.
It only takes a spark.