Light and peace, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matt 5: 15-15). Amen.
Christmas ushered in the presence of light as Jesus’ birth extinguished the darkness. Epiphany calls us to spread that light on our journeys. One of the central images of God’s communication with his people is the visual acknowledgement of the holy, the manifestation of God in that of the luminous face. It is expected that worshipers like you and me will discover the radiance of God’s face, and in its light we, too, will shine.
As recorded in Matthew’s birth story, wise men of the Gentiles were drawn to this light as if they were reading a birth announcement written in the stars. The magi, we know in English as the “wise men,” did not have the prophetic benefit of the Scriptures—the law and the prophets—so they read the stars and interpreted nature’s revelations from them. This radiant, alien beacon drew them from the East to the land of Judah. It did not take long for the announcement of the proximity of this radiance to generate fear and awe in King Herod and all Jerusalem. Herod secretly summoned the foreigners for their abilities as G.P.S. devices and as co-conspirators in the demise of his rival. When the magi finally arrived at the place where the star stopped in the sky above where the child was, their hearts were filled with exceeding joy. Thus the radiance had a double effect—fear and darkness come upon those who seek to extinguish it, and blessings on those who seek God’s face.
So it is at Epiphany, the Feast of Lights, that we come to the end of the journey that began in Advent with the portentous announcement of the coming of the Lord. Six weeks later we find ourselves stunned by Herod, who knew that because of this baby born in Bethlehem, he and his kingdom were in mortal peril. So Herod responded in the way rulers usually respond, with violence. He called out the army and it massacred all the Jewish boy babies in Bethlehem—only one of many violent attempts by governments to rid themselves of challenges to their power (Matt 2: 16).
We witnessed this very thing last week in Kenya, on the ninth night of Christmas, when an estimated 50 people of the Kikuyu ethnic group – many of them children – were burned alive after taking shelter from a mob in a church in the western town of Eldoret. Over 300 people have died in the country as its two political leaders dig in their heels and refuse to back down over alleged rigged election results. So now, again, in this Epiphany season we are sadly accustomed to understanding that the radiant One who came to usher in a new kingdom, who did so quietly, in vulnerability, in the midst of violence, was prepared for suffering so that the darkness would not swallow us. The radiant one came to offer us a new vision, new hopes that even in the terrible darkness of an infant 2008 we will always have a lamp to illuminate the darkness. And so we continue to pray, “Be our light in darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.”
The Epiphany marks the magi’s recognition of the true nature of the Christ child. “A light for revelation to the Gentiles” is the Bible’s shorthand way of saying that Christ’s mission is to the whole world (Luke 2:32). At Epiphany we remember that we are all human beings together, and all made in God’s image. It is our mandate to see the radiant being of God’s spirit in one another; to be available for one another in ways we cannot fathom. And while one family may lament and wail the loss of life, at that very moment another life is created, re-created. From darkness comes light; from death comes life.
More than five years ago, we prayed months on end for a man named Len Geiger, the brother of a parishioner, Beth Bolstad. Many of you may remember Beth and Arlen Bolstad. They are still in Richmond and friends of this parish, but now they attend St. Thomas in their Northside neighborhood. At the time that Len was on our prayer list he was gravely ill and being treated at the UVA Medical Center for genetic emphysema, also known as Alpha-1, and surgery for a hip replacement due to the drugs that had ravished his body. A lung transplant was his only hope for survival. He had been on a waiting list for five years when he was granted a miracle of new life. But that miracle came at a devastating price no family wants to pay. The story I am about to tell was recounted in a Sports Illustrated article published this past September by Rick Reilly.
Reilly begins his piece: “One day five years ago bubbly, gorgeous soccer goalie Korinne Shroyer came home from eighth grade, found her father’s revolver in his closet and fired a bullet into her skull. Out of a million kids you’d pick Korinne last to commit suicide. She was a popular kid in her class in Lynchburg, Va. But then she started feeling sad for no reason. Her parents took her to a therapist, who recommended Paxil. But one worry with Paxil is that it can give teenagers suicidal thoughts when they first start taking it. Korinne made it through 10 days.”
Well as you can imagine that bullet tore a hole in her parents, especially her father, Kevin Shroyer, who described Korinne as his best friend. She was the kid who would Rollerblade with him as he ran for hours, the kid who’d come with him to Orioles games and chat with him until his ears hurt. “I used to run all the time,” says Kevin. “I loved it because it gave me time to think. But [after the suicide], thinking was the last thing I wanted to do.” Reilly recounts, Kevin and his wife, Kristie, were able to think one clear and brave and terrifying thought during the six days Korinne survived after the shooting. They decided to send out her organs like gifts.
“Her green eyes would go in one direction, her glad heart another, her kidneys still another. Her liver and her pancreas went somewhere else, and her two good lungs — the ones that played the saxophone — went to a Gainesville, Ga., man named Len Geiger, who was so close to dying that he was practically pricing caskets. He was on his fifth year on the waiting list and “life wasn’t worth living,” he says, when Korinne pulled the trigger. Len received those two young lungs six days later in an operation at the UVA Medical Center.
Len got his second wind and his second life. Reilly reported that he was so grateful, he wrote Korinne’s parents to say thank you. That letter changed everybody’s lives. Korinne’s parents wrote back, and Len asked to meet them which they did at a bittersweet gathering that became tear-soaked. Hours later the group was parting when Kristie said, “Len? Can I ask you a favor?” She walked over and stood before him. “Anything,” Len said. “Can I put my hands on your chest for just a second?” And she stood there, crying, as she felt her dead daughter breathe.
Well, the story goes that Kevin started to run again. And someone had a great idea. Why didn’t he and Len run together? So they did. They ran an 8K together, step for step, next to each other. One man’s overflowing joy coming straight from the other’s bottomless sorrow.
That whole run, Kevin never shut up. It was so unlike him that, at the end, Len asked him, “Why?” “I had to,” Kevin admitted, “because every time there was silence, I could hear Korinne breathing.”
Reilly ended his piece by reporting that Kevin and Kristie aren’t whole yet, but they’re getting on with their lives. Len, meanwhile, is relishing his. He met a woman, Christina, married her, and they named their first baby after Korinne — Ava Corinne. Sometimes he stares at her, awed. “I know that without Korinne, I’m not here today and neither is Ava Corinne.”
The point of my sharing this story with you is that there are no limits placed on this love born at Christmas. Epiphany is about light coming into the darkness of our individual lives, about our return from exile, about inner peace. Indeed, it is about the birth of Christ within us. For the same God who said, “Out of darkness let light shine,” has caused the radiance of Spirit to shine from within us, to offer us the breath of life as the sure sign of the luminous presence of Jesus Christ. Amen.