lighten our darkness, o lord - St. Philip's in the Hills Episcopal Church

Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon John E. Kitagawa at the Celebration of
the Holy Eucharist, on Sunday, 2 February 2014 (The Feast of the Presentation of
the Presentation), St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, Arizona
Malachi 3: 1-4; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 22 - 40
Lighten our darkness, we beseech [you], O Lord; and by your great mercy defend us
from all perils and dangers of this [life]; for the love of [your] only Son, Jesus Christ.
These words are an adaptation of a prayer from the Order of Worship for the Evening. This brief
prayer encapsulates so much of our deepest human yearnings. Whether we are rich or poor,
powerful or weak, male or female, old or young, gay or straight; or, whether we are from the
dominant culture or from a racial minority, we can all join in praying this prayer,
"Lighten our darkness, O Lord ..." because it is in darkness that the things "that go bump in
the night" lurk; it is in darkness that our primal fears brood.
"Lighten our darkness, O Lord ..." because in our guts, we have a sense that "the wicked shall
be cut off in darkness" (I Samuel 2: 9).
"Lighten our darkness, O Lord ..." because in one way or another, we are all lost and
stumbling around in darkness without the Light of Christ.
"Lighten our darkness, O Lord ..." because without the light of Christ, we cannot find our
moral compass, nor can we find the pathway of the pilgrimage of faith.
"Lighten our darkness, O Lord ..." because "... only in you can we live in safety"2.
“Lighten our darkness, O Lord ..." because in truth, in very truth, we cannot redeem ourselves,
and we cannot save ourselves.
In some churches, today is known as Candlemas, a celebration of God's response to the deepest
and most universal longings of the human heart. Harkening to Simeon's proclamation, Candlemas is
often marked by a candlelit procession, and the lighting of congregational hand candles. As one
commentator has written:
The symbolism is direct, obvious, and very beautiful; the Candlemas procession is the
entry of the true Light into the world, and the gradual illumination of the whole world
by [Christ]. This is expressed by the lighting of the candles from each other until
they are held by the whole congregation, and also by the carrying of the lights into
every part of the church during the procession3.
While a symbolic liturgical action can be moving, lightening the darkness in the lives of individuals
and communities is not so simple. So, for the next few minutes, I want to loosen the fabric of today's
Gospel story. I want to reflect with you on some of the fibers which make up the tapestry, and then I
hope to bring it all back together again.
Let me begin with something I picked up years ago at a Vestry Workshop. This quotation speaks
to a common thread running through today’s Gospel:
When God breaks in on a sufficiently prepared people, a new, outgoing, spontaneous,
free and joyous [faith] emerges.
Notice the description of Simeon:
... this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel,
and the Holy Spirit rested on him (Luke 2: 25).
I want to suggest that being sufficiently prepared was essential to Simeon's ability to discern the baby
Jesus as God breaking into the world in a new way, to see Jesus as:
[God's] salvation, which [God] prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for
revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel (Luke 2: 30-32).
Remember how Anna was described
She never left the temple, but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day
(Luke 2: 37).
I want to suggest that being sufficiently prepared was critical to Anna's ability to respond to the baby
Jesus. As she recognized Jesus for who he was, she immediately began:
to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption
of Jerusalem (Luke 2: 28).
Both of these responses to Jesus are new, outgoing, spontaneous, free and joyous expressions of faith.
They are proclamations that God lightens the darkness.
Let me skate on the edge of theological orthodoxy. We often lose sight of the fact that Jesus was
raised in a devout family, one that followed the tenets of their faith, and adhered to the rituals of their
religion. I note this because we usually think of Jesus as the Son of God. By today’s narrative,
Luke wants us to know that Jesus was raised by parents who did all they could to pass on traditions
and faith. From this perspective, we might say the human Jesus was sufficiently prepared to
respond to God's call to mission and ministry.
The tapestry of today's Gospel contains another significant strand. The first thing Simeon tells us
is that God is true to God's word (B.C.P., p. 135):
Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised…4
I am reminded of familiar words from Eucharistic Prayer C:
From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with
memory, reason and skill. You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned
against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.
Again and again, you called us to return5.
Despite our struggles with faith, despite our lapses in keeping our part of the covenant, God is
persistently and consistently present for and with us. But, are we sufficiently prepared to see that
God is true to God's word? Are we sufficiently prepared to accept God breaking into our lives, and
living according to that promise and that hope? Are we sufficiently prepared to trust the illuminating
and guiding light of Christ?
We celebrate and proclaim God's true light coming into the world, and through us, gradually
illuminating the whole world. It is ironic that we still use candles as symbols for God's power and
presence. Candles are obsolete technology. With the advent of electricity, candles are relics from a
time when they were humankind's only source of light. Years ago, Elton John wrote a lyric a "candle
in the wind"—a wonderful image for the vulnerability of candlelight. On the other hand, there may
be something appropriate about using this non-mechanical, untechnological, and vulnerable as a
symbol of God's power to illumine the world. For vulnerability calls upon us to tend the flame, to
care for the fire, and to direct the light to the greatest darkness.
I conclude with wisdom of Henri J. M. Nouwen. He writes about the light in this way:
Mostly we have just enough light to see the next step: what we have to do in the
coming hour or the following day. The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and
not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step
with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk
through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go. Let's rejoice in the little light
we carry and not ask for the great beam that would take all shadows away6.
From this perspective, candlelight is much kinder and more manageable than would be a spotlight.
Lighten our darkness, we beseech [you], O Lord; and by your great mercy defend us
from all perils of this [day]; for the love of [your] only Son, Jesus Christ.
The Book of Common Prayer, 111.
Ibid, 121.
Clarke, W. K. Lowther (ed), Liturgy and Worship (London, S.P.C.K.), 1936, 732.
Op Cit, Book of Common Prayer, 135.
Ibid, 370.
Nouwsen, Henri J., Bread for the Journey (San Francisco, Harper Collins), 1997, January 8.