1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
According to the “secular” calendar this is the first Sunday of the New Year. What better way to begin the new year than with a reflection on the story of creation. While the Gospel reading speaks of the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:4-11), an event that marks the beginning of his ministry, the reading from Genesis, while mentioning waters, is less about water and more about light. The lectionary selection from the Hebrew Bible focuses on the first day of creation, the day when God separates light from darkness. Yes, at the moment of creation “darkness covered the face of the deep.” Then, as the Spirit/Wind of God moved across these dark waters, God invites light to come into existence. God speaks the first words of creation: “Let there be light.” When God spoke these words, light emerges from the darkness. When God sees the light, God declares that it is good. Yes, take note that God does not declare the darkness to be good, only the light.
This word about light and darkness could easily elicit from me a reflection about the message of Star Wars. I could speak about the dangers and the attractiveness of the dark side of the Force. I could, but I’ll refrain. Instead, I will interpret these words in light of the liturgical context in which we read these opening lines of the biblical story. It’s important to remember that the creators of the lectionary chose to emphasize the first act of creation, the separation of light from darkness. This is not an invitation to explore creation in its fullness, but rather to consider how the light of God comes into the world, to bring light to our darkness.
The season of Epiphany celebrates the revelation of God’s presence in the world in the person of Jesus. It is linked in tradition to the coming of the Magi, who follow a star shining in the darkness of night, leading them to the place where the king of Israel resides (Matt 2:1-12). In the prologue to John’s Gospel, while not the Gospel reading for this Sunday, reflects this incarnational theme. The Word of God takes flesh and dwells in our midst (Jn. 1:14). We hear a word about John the Baptist testifying that “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (Jn. 1:6-9). John doesn’t have the Baptist baptizing Jesus, but he does testify that one is present who baptizes with the Spirit. This is the one whom John testifies is the light shining into the darkness.
Many believe that we live in a time of darkness. Even though at the macro level the American economy is going gangbusters, too many Americans are being left behind. There is the fear of nuclear war with North Korea, unrest in the Middle East, and a general feeling of malaise and frustration at home. Spiritually, institutional religion struggles to connect. Perhaps most insidious is a deepening fear of the other. While many seem to feel the need for God, they also seem unsure where to find the presence of God present. In other words, the light has been placed under a bushel, and darkness seems to reign. Hope is giving way to despair.
While darkness seems to cover the face of the deep of our world, where despair and a sense of abandonment seem to reign, we hear in these words from Genesis 1 a celebration of light. It is a word to the people of God, signaling that while darkness may seem to cover the earth, darkness will not prevail. In separating light from darkness, the light is freed up to enlighten everyone, so that all might see God’s presence, God’s glory (kabod), and rejoice in that glory. As this is the Sunday in which the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus, and with it all baptisms are celebrated, we might hear in the message of the day, an invitation to enter the light that is God and that is revealed to the world in the presence of Jesus.
I close with the words of the Philipp Nicolai hymn “O Morning Star.” As we ponder the light shining in the darkness in the person of Jesus, the one whom John declares is the light of the world, we sing these words from the second verse of this hymn:
Come, heavenly brightness, light divine,
And deep within our hearts now shine;
There light a flame undying!
In your one body let us be as living branches of a tree,
Your life our lives supplying.
Now, though daily earth’s deep sadness may perplex us and distress us,
Yet with heavenly joy you bless us.
(Chalice Hymnal, 105).