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Do you see better now?  Or now?

Anyone who’s ever had an eye examination will immediately recognize these questions. As the optometrist places different lenses in front of your eyes, you focus on the letters on the screen and indicate if one lens helps you see better than another.

Seeing clearly is a key theme of the Biblical narrative because faith is more a matter of perception than belief.  Faith is a way to perceive your life and the life of the world in the context of a bigger story—and for Christians that bigger story is the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the light of the world.

It should come then, as no surprise, that the calendar of the Christian year cycles through the seasons of the sun in the northern hemisphere because seeing things is easier in the light than in the dark. Each of the major festivals of the year is related to increasing or diminishing light.

  • Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus is celebrated very close to the winter solstice: the ‘light’ of God coming to earth when night is longer than day.
  • Easter, when the resurrection of Jesus is proclaimed is near the spring equinox when daylight hours are increasing.
  • Pentecost, when the gift of the Holy Spirit is celebrated is at the summer equinox when the hours of light are greater than the darkness
  • Holy Cross Day is near the autumn solstice as the hours of light are again diminishing.

It’s a cycle of observances that, in the northern hemisphere, rhymes the spiritual with the natural rhythms of earth—the old carol gets it right with its refrain ‘and heaven and nature sing!’  But nowhere is this focus on light and darkness so clear as in the seasons of Epiphany and Lent.  

Epiphany is the feast of light: the word epiphany means revelation or manifestation. Epiphany is the season that begins with the story of how a star—a light in the sky--guided the journey of the magi seeking the infant Jesus. A bright star in the darkened sky is what leads these Persian astrologers to find the Holy Family.  It is light in the darkness that guides them to see the Word made flesh; as the author of the Fourth Gospel puts it “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”The star was the guide to encounter the light of the world.

In the Epiphany Sundays following the story of the magi, the appointed gospel readings offer various ways in which the light of Christ shines, enabling all who to see their own lives and the life of the world more clearly. The stories of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, the miracle of changing water into wine at Cana in Galilee, and the calling of the disciples describe moments where those around him were able to perceive more clearly how God was at work in Jesus. The season of Epiphany culminates in one of the most beautiful of all the illumination accounts in the gospels—the Transfiguration—where, on a mountaintop with his disciples, Jesus is bathed in light and a voice from heaven is heard to say,“This is my beloved Son!”  Epiphany is the festival of light--of increasing clarity of who Jesus Christ is—and how that changes our perceptions of our own lives and the life of the world.

And then, as if a switch is turned off, the church is plunged into darkness as it moves into the season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday each person is reminded of our mortality—a sign of the cross is traced on our foreheads as the ominous words are spoken, ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. Death comes to each of us.  No matter how great our perception of the love of God in Christ Jesus is, our earthly lives come to an end.  Not only do we all die but we continually miss the mark, we make mistakes, we sin, and these twin realities of sin and death begin a journey into the season of Lent. 

Interestingly the name of the season “Lent” is an abbreviation of the word ‘lengthen’ referring to the lengthening of daylight hours in the northern hemisphere. On the first Sunday in Lent the appointed gospel takes us to the wilderness, telling the story of Jesus temptations. Throughout the season, lectionary readings are filled with parables and accounts of how often even Jesus closest of followers do not see what is plainly in front of them, and miss opportunities to be part of the healing, reconciling love of God. Lent ends in Holy Week, when, beginning on Palm Sunday we recall the crucifixion of Jesus--the day the light goes out—the gospel accounts tell of how darkness at the time of Jesus death covered the whole earth.

But that’s not the end of the story: very early on the first Easter day—while it was still dark—women came and found not only the tomb empty but were given an experience that spoke to them of the ongoing presence of Jesus now risen and with them in a new way.

Throughout this transition from Epiphany to Lent the optometrist’s question is apt: about your faith, about how you perceive your life, about Jesus Christ—do you see better now?  Or now?



Clear view of nature through a lens focused on the light iStock ID: 1264340404 

Photo Credit: Jens HN