This is the night of new beginnings

Easter Vigil at the church of the Ascension, Oak Park, IL, USA

Today’s hymn choice from Sing Praise is “This is the night of new beginnings” by Bernadette Farrell. The tune and the words of the chorus are the same as her hymn “Longing for light”.  At first I thought the present hymn an adaptation of that one, but see John’s comment below, that this hymn dates from 1990 & 1991, and “Longing for light” is later (1993).

These original words, then, are intended for the Easter vigil. This ceremony is observed by some, but by no means all, church congregations, either at sunset on Easter eve or sunrise on Easter morning depending on local preference).  Neither is ‘wrong’, for who can say at what moment Christ was resurrected between the start of the Sabbath (Friday evening) when the women went home and the rising of the sun on Easter Sunday when they returned?  The emphasis varies with the chosen time: if at sunset, it’s about entering the darkness, the loss of contact with God as Jesus his son has died (while also anticipating the resurrection).  We do need this in our spiritual lives, an acknowledgement that sometimes God seems absent and life seems hopeless, and faith in the resurrection seems a distant hope. 

If the vigil takes place around sunrise, it begins in sombre darkness, often gathered around a fire, but as the day dawns the Easter candle is lit from the fire and carried into church with great shouts of “The light of Christ!” and “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” 

This year, of course, it was all different. At our church at least, the Covid restrictions meant there was no singing other than the Vicar’s wife singing an Easter song quietly outside the church, and a strong wind meant that the Easter candle had to be lit indoors (there was no fire anyway: our service is not at dawn).

But back to the words of the hymn. Both options above seem to be covered: verse 1 speaks of the “night of new beginnings” (a reminder to me of an Easter sermon by the late Revd Val Clarke who described the Christian life lived in the light of the Resurrection as “the land of Begin-Again”). Verse 2 is about the “night Christ our Redeemer rose from the grave triumphant and free”. The middle verse speaks of the fire kindled in darkness to dispel the shadows of night. 

Verse 4, which should probably be marked with an increase in volume and maybe tempo, urges people to “Sing of the hope deeper than dying, sing of the power stronger than death, sing of the love endless as heaven, dawning throughout the earth”. I love those words: it reminds us that the Easter celebration is not for the individual, nor just the local congregation nor even the totality of Christians worldwide, a billion strong though we are.  No, Easter is for the whole of creation to sing praise to our redeeming God.

Finally, as the sun rises perhaps, the last verse proclaims that “into this world morning is breaking” and calls God’s people to “lift up your voice, cry out with joy, tell out the story, all of the earth rejoice!”  

The chorus after each verse is “Christ be our light, shine in our hearts, shine through the darkness. Christ be our light, shine in your church gathered today”. This is another reminder that we are part of a larger whole.

Bright as fire in darkness

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Bright as fire in darkness”, words attributed to Stanbrook Abbey. We have already had one of their other compositions, “When Jesus comes to be baptised”, on 14 January.

This is a very short hymn, comprising just three verses, each four lines of five or six syllables. Yesterday’s theme of the Word of God appears here too, revealed at the end of verse 1: “Bright as fire in darkness, sharper than a sword, lives throughout the ages God’s eternal Word”.  Note that ‘Word’ is capitalised to make it clear it refers to the person of the Trinity revealed in Jesus.  And as with yesterday, the Word is seen to be active – fire and sword are not static images, nor are they signs of safety. There are risks involved when we engage with the Word of God.

The second verse also refers to the ‘word’ – “Christ, your eyes of mercy see our sins revealed; speak the word that saves us, that we may be healed”.   Forgiveness, salvation and healing are not three separate things but three aspects of the work of the Word of God.  Note that this time ‘word’ is not capitalised – is there a meaningful distinction between the person of the Word who lives throughout the ages, and the spoken word that saves us?  Is salvation not through the Word himself, rather than the spoken (or written) word? 

In the last verse the first two lines are a standard doxology (praise to the Trinity) followed by “compassed in your glory, give the world your light”. The reference to light brings us full circle to where we started – ‘bright as fire’. So may we be.

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New light has dawned

Today’s song, continuing the Candlemas theme, is “New light has dawned, the son of God is here” by Paul Wigmore. In terms of Biblical stories of Jesus, the first three verses cover the incarnation, the announcement to the shepherds (but surprisingly not the magi), the presentation to Simeon (meriting its inclusion among hymns for this season) and the later episode where the adolescent Jesus debates theology with the Temple priests in Jerusalem. The common thread is that anyone who encounters Jesus encounters light, whether through a prophetic word or an apparition of angels.

The qualities of the Christ-light are listed here: it is “a holy light no earthly light outshines”, “the light that casts out fear”, “the light that evil dreads and love defines”, “the light of glory”, and quoting Simeon “the light to lighten gentile eyes”. The fourth verse is our response to Christ as we acclaim him “the light who came to us on earth”.

But what does the “light of Christ” mean to us ordinary believers who haven’t met an angel or had an extraordinary gift of prophecy?  It’s hard to put into words but here’s the best way I can express  it: when Christ is present in my life, there is an optimism to life, a sense that whatever ups and down I experience in physical health or the stresses of work, something or someone is ‘shining down on me’.  When I experience this, even if I shut my eyes so that I see no natural light, it is as if I’m still in a well lit room, not a dark one.  Does that tally with Wigmore’s description?  Fairly well – it certainly casts out fear, or at least anxiety, it can be glorious, and lightens the eyes of this particular gentile.  But what about “the light that evil dreads and love defines”?

This light is not something I experience all the time. Most Christians will agree that love for God is like love for your partner in that after the first few years of excitement, the relationship can easily be taken for granted and the spark of love goes out – not that you dislike your partner or Lord or want to disown them, just that the light of love has gone dim. That’s why the last lines of the hymn ask Christ to “renew the faith you gave at our new birth, destroy the dark, and let your light come in”.  

I’m attending a ‘quiet day’ tomorrow, usually held in a retreat centre but this time with the devotional talks on Zoom and time away from the computer to reflect at home in between them.  I pray Christ will enlighten me again, and pray that for you too.

Kindle a flame to lighten the dark

The song from “Sing Praise” for today, still on the theme of Candlemas, is a very short one, one of John Bell’s brief motets to be sung several times, slowly and meditatively, and ideally with different voices in harmony.  The text is short enough to quote in full: “Kindle a flame to lighten the dark and take all fear away”.

I wrote at length yesterday about Candlemas, so like the song I will keep it brief today.  Following on from where the last blog post finished, Candlemas is a time to remember that “do not fear” is one of the most common phrases in the Bible, and it is the light of eternal life kindled in Jesus that enables fears of all kinds to be taken away.

Whatever your fear is, sing (or say) this text to yourself several times, slowly, and ask Jesus to take the fear away and replace it with His light. “Kindle a flame to lighten the dark and take all fear away”.

Awake, awake, fling off the night

Today’s hymn, keeping up the theme of light in this Epiphany season, is “Awake, awake, fling off the night”. The light of Christ is contrasted with the darkness of sin.  It is a biblical message: “light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Sin and evil are often associated with darkness, because when we know that what we are doing is wrong – and most of the time we do – we naturally want to hide from it.  So most crime is committed at night, or down dark alleyways, or in other places where the criminal will not be disturbed. 

The constant theme of Scripture is that God is everywhere and knows everything we do, indeed every secret thought.  There are no dark places, no hidden corners, where we can hide from God to do our evil deeds unnoticed. As the psalmist puts it. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Ps. 139:7). 

That sounds scary – God the policeman who patrols wherever we choose to walk, as well as being the judge who passes sentence. The good news is that in Jesus, God also becomes the one who pardons.   But as in human relationships and penal systems, there can only be pardon where there is contrition. The first step is to admit our sin to God and ask forgiveness.  Then the pardon can come, and light replace the darkness.  So the last verse of the hymn encourages the forgiven sinner to sing for joy and praise God.

Gather us in

Today’s hymn is a modern one, but familiar to me: usually known as “Gather us in” as that phrase occurs three times, but the first line is “Here in this place new light is streaming”, which keeps us on the Epiphany season theme of light coming into the world.  The theme of light recurs in the final verse – “Here in this place the new light is shining, now is the kingdom, and now is the day”. 

The overall theme, though, is indeed that of being gathered in.  The composer, Marty Haugen, is very much in the liberal / inclusive tradition of contemporary Christianity, and makes the point well here: in Christ everyone is gathered together: “the lost and forsaken, the blind and the lame … the young and the old … the rich and the haughty, the proud and the strong”. The light of Christ banishes the differences that have set people apart. 

The third verse diverges from these themes of gathering and light, and is appropriate to include for the communion service or celebration of mass – something that many of us are missing at present in the Covid pandemic with its lockdowns and social distancing. At best we might be allowed to remove our masks for a moment to slip a consecrated wafer, dropped at arm’s length into the hand, into our mouths. But no sharing of the symbolic common cup, only a ‘spiritual’ partaking in the blood of Christ, and no chance of hugging a fellow worshipper at the Peace.  Not knowing how long this will last, my choices of hymns on Sundays this year will include as many eucharistic songs as I can find in the book. 

But the words of this verse remind us that the communion is not only for our own benefit: we are gathered in from our different backgrounds only to be sent out again together. We are invited here to sing “call us anew to be salt for the earth”, and “nourish us well and teach us to fashion lives that are holy and hearts that are true”.  The Christians strengthened by the body and blood of Christ go out as one body to be of service in the world, in the light of his presence.

The Bible in a Year – 26 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this

26 December. 1 John chapters 1-5

There is so much in this deeply spiritual writing that it is impossible to summarise it neatly, and it reads more like an unscripted but passionate sermon than like one of Paul’s carefully argued theological letters.  The one unifying theme is love: the love of God for those who believe in Jesus, the importance of us loving God more than the “world”, and of loving our “brothers and sisters” (other Christians) even if we disagree with them.

There is also a second strand running through the book, that of sin and grace. John does not actually use the word ‘grace’ but describes it in other ways. He says that if we confess our sins and repent, Jesus will “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9); and describes those who truly believe in Jesus as having “God’s seed abiding in them” and being “born of God” (3:9) to prevent them from sinning.

What John is trying to get at, although it is such a deep mystery that even he struggles to convey it in simple language, is that since Jesus Christ came into the world there is now a clear division between people, greater than any division caused by barriers of race, language and even religious background.  On the one hand are those who have come to him, described as “walking in the light and having fellowship with one another” (1:7), who obey the commandments of Jesus, particularly those regarding loving others (2:3), do the will of God (2:17) and are called his children (3:2), no longer commit sin (3:9) – although the epilogue at the end of chapter 5 admits that this is not quite true – and have the Holy Spirit (4:13).  The opposite is true of those who do not yet walk in the light but remain in darkness: they do not obey God or Jesus, cannot be called his children, live in sin and do not have the Spirit in them. They “love the world and the things in the world” (2:15).  The distinction is summed up starkly at the end of the letter: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (5:12).

The good news is that the only way to move from darkness to light is to believe in Jesus – not simply in assenting that he lived and died, or that he was a good teacher, but in wanting to become part of him and be open to the Holy Spirit.  Only in that way can we share in the light that comes from God the Father.

There are no doubt many better summaries of John’s teaching than mine.  But the message is clear – anyone can become part of God’s family, but Jesus is the only way in.

The Bible in a Year – 27 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

27 July. Proverbs chapters 4-6

Kanyakumari-dawn

From these chapters I will pick only one verse (4:18): “The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (NIV translation).

The main reason for picking this verse is that it reminds me of a trip to India eleven years ago, to see the work of the Christian development charity Tearfund and their Indian partners EFICOR and ESAF. For part of our time there we stayed in a hotel on the very southernmost tip of the continent, where you could see the sun rise in the east and set in the west from the same point.  This photo was taken from the hotel bedroom at dawn (about 6am), and the dawn was marked by loud worship from both the Hindu temple and the Catholic church nearby.

Offering praise to God at the start of the day is common to most religions. While a scientist may prosaically say that the earth is simply rotating on its axis so that the sun comes into view each morning, the idea of the rising sun banishing the darkness of evil and heralding the coming of God’s goodness and protection – what we might call a sacramental view of cosmology – is a common one.  Similarly, right living is compared to living in the light, and sinfulness to walking in darkness.

In the original context of this verse, the “way of the righteous” is contrasted with the “way of the wicked which is deep darkness”.  In other words, the more you live according to the way of wisdom, following the ethical teachings of your religion, and living honestly and openly, the clearer you will see the world; whereas if you get enticed into sin and crime, which naturally lead to secrecy, fraud and lies, the world will become dark to you and you will lose your moral compass.  In that context, the dawning of the sun is like the moment of conversion when you realise that following Christ (who called himself the “light of the world”) is the only way to a life lived in the full light of day.

The work of ESAF (Evangelical Social Action Forum), and other Christian agencies in the region including the Salvation Army, that we saw included working in local villages with fishermen and coconut growers who had lost their livelihood as a result of the 2004 tsunami; provision of clothing, food and medical treatment for homeless people; reconstruction of damaged houses and building new ones; supporting “Sangrams” (self help groups”; and starting an orphanage and Sunday schools. They also ran a micro enterprise scheme which offers insurance, a savings bank and capital investments for income generation projects.  All this was truly bringing light into the darkness of some of the poorest people of India.

 

The Bible in a Year – 1 May

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

1 May. Isaiah chapters 9-12

At least two passages here have been much used in Christian thought as prophecies of Jesus Christ: the beginning of chapter 9 (“The people who walked in darkness…”) with its reference to the child from Galilee who will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”; and the start of chapter 11, the “shoot of the stock of Jesse” (i.e. a descendant of King David) who would rule Israel in peace for ever.  These certainly tie in with what we know or believe about Jesus.

 

The danger, of course, lies in quoting isolated verses: these short passages are set within larger passages of verse that clearly relate to the politics of Isaiah’s time.  More objective commentators consider that the prophecies of a saviour or messiah in this book are really pointing to King Cyrus of Persia under whose rule the Jews eventually returned to Jerusalem.

 

This, however, is no reason why these prophecies could not have had a deeper meaning as well.   And the opening verse of chapter 9 – “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who lived in a land of deep darkness, light has shined” – is true whenever anyone turns to God in faith.