This year, I am ploughing through winter with the determination to enjoy it. I know that sounds strange, especially since the last couple of years I have not enjoyed any part of winter at all and I have expressed that in my writing. However, this year on the Winter Solstice, I made a promise to myself and to God that I would find a way to enjoy this strange and unusual gift to the earth and to humanity and I have.
This year, after two years away from it, I am back to winter walking and when I am out in the cold of winter I notice that I seem to come alive. I notice nature in new ways. I love the silence that is part of the solitude of winter and in that silence my thoughts are clearer and more meaningful. Prayer occurs with each step. The air on my face and in my lungs, causes me to notice my breathing in different ways. My body moves to keep warm and to feel alive, but also moves for me to discover new sites. Best of all the light of winter calls me and shines on my heart and soul as well as my face. The light is profound in its courage to shine—no matter how weakly—and offer the world the promise that the light will get stronger, the days longer, and warmth will return. I find myself smiling in spite of the cold.
And yet, cold is cold is cold. And it is not always pretty. When the “real feel” temperatures reach 20 below 0 Fahrenheit, as it has this past week, it is relentless. Sometimes it is dark and dreary and dangerous. Frostbite lurks in each gust of wind. For many people winter brings pain in body and soul, despair over the basic needs of life. For many it is a difficult time to get through and brings added fears. For many it brings loneliness and isolation. For many, it is a reminder of the coldness of the world—darkness that penetrates hope instead of the other way around.
One of my first winters away from my native North Carolina home was a year of frigid temperatures in Washington, DC. Coming from Piedmont North Carolina I had never experienced anything like wind chill temperatures below zero. The night before the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan was the same kind of below zero wind chill temperatures that we have experienced this past week and much of the outside activities for that event were cancelled.
During that time, I was volunteering with the House of Ruth, one of the shelters for women in DC. I drove women from the shelter to job training sites, but I also helped the shelter keep track of many of the city’s homeless by taking food out on Sunday nights. It was during the time of the inauguration that I met a woman who was so very cold and struggling with keeping warm in a city where no one noticed her or really wanted her around. She was not well, coughing every other moment, chilled to the bone, hungry, and homeless in a city where the bright, white powerful buildings captured the imagination of the world and the desire for power settled into the souls of many people like a sudden shadow of stormy clouds on an otherwise sunny day.
I would not have seen her if I had not been volunteering for the House of Ruth. Many of the homeless were well hidden during the inauguration week, but even though they were out of the site of the public and visitors, they were still there. Keeping them hidden did not make the problem go away. It just gave a reason to deny that these precious souls were in need of help or to justify the notion that they had chosen this way of life.
That particular moment, when I met this woman, has become an important memory for me. I remember asking her if she was cold and did she want to go to a shelter. Her words were sharp and heavyhearted. “Yes, I am cold. Bone cold. I don’t want to go to a shelter; I want to go home. But I have no home to go to. Why is that?”
As I write today, I am aware that it is Epiphany. It is the day when Christians celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem to visit the Christ child. We think of the gifts that they brought—the gold and frankincense, and myrrh. It is the part of the Nativity story that ends in tragedy, but for me it is most profound because through it all there is this bright star shining as a beacon of hope in the midst of despair. With the arrival and departure of the Wise Men, King Herod realized the importance of the birth of Jesus and decreed that all children two and under be put to death. Of course, Jesus and his family were able to flee, but there was a heavy burden that they had to bear knowing that all these “holy innocents” lost their lives.
It is no wonder that we rush to put the Wise Men in our Nativities before they appear in the timeline of the story. It is no wonder that we rush to put away Christmas before Epiphany. It is no wonder, but it is a denial that this event occurred, putting despair in the end of the Christmas story.
We just don’t like this part of the story so we put Christmas away before we have to remember it.
We don’t like the tragic part of life so we brush it aside so we do not have to think about it.
The reality is that this tragedy which we like to cover up on an annual basis, that we like to forget exists, is an example of the need for Epiphany and it is an example of why this part of the story is so powerful:
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” Isaiah 60:1-2
Epiphany celebrates the Wise Men coming to visit the Christ child as a reminder that Christ came for the whole world, for all races, nations, beliefs. No one is turned away by Christ. And the symbol for this powerful reality is the light that is represented in the star that led the Wise Men, which is a symbol for Christ, the Light of the world.
And this year, it is fitting that we celebrate Epiphany on one of the coldest days of the winter. The world is cold. The world is dark. It is full of evil and jealousy and greed and despair. And yet, in this cold and darkness there is an inextinguishable Light showing the way. And today, the prophet of old speaks to us again, telling us to arise and shine because our light has come—Christ the light of the world.
While Epiphany reminds us that the Light has come into our dark world, it is not a reminder for us to just sit and enjoy the light shining in the darkness. It is a reminder that we are part of that Light. We are the body of Christ, the Light of the world and if the Light continues to shine it is not because the Light has granted us privilege to just sit back, but because the Light has invited us on the journey of bringing love and grace and mercy into this world. The Light can become brighter if we engage our lives in the life of Christ. The Light offers even more healing and hope when we offer our talents and gifts and passions to Christ to use in this world.
I love Epiphany! I love the images of stars and light. I love that Christ trusts us to help chase the dark and cold away and to help bring hope into a world where despair is too often the emotion that is most prominent for so many. As I think about and celebrate Epiphany in the midst of this cold, cold day I am reminded of a quote from the 19th century poet Lucy Larcom:
“If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.”
For Lucy Larcom’s 19th century world in New England, where she lived and worked, winters were always challenging with the cold and with keeping fires going to stave off the drafts of the winter chills. Larcom was also aware of the metaphorical cold that was the world around her as well. She was born in 1824, the ninth of ten children in her family and at age 8 her father died, leaving her mother to open their home as a boarding house in order to survive. When Larcom turned 11 years old she went to work in the mills around Lowell, MA and learned the trials of working long, difficult shifts that no child should ever have to experience.
Larcom’s outlet was writing and during her 10 years working in the mills, she wrote poems and pieces that were published. Many of the themes of these poems centered around working in the mills. As an adult, Larcom became a teacher and her life centered around writing and teaching, but her passions—her fires—centered around activism and making life easier for others who found the cold of the world their only companion.
I can imagine how inviting and comforting the fires in the fireplaces of the Boarding house must have seemed after a long day of mill work and the discomfort of walking in the chill of New England winters. I can imagine that the brief respite before helping her mother with the evening work might have offered a brief time to dream about how life could be. Maybe it was in front of those fires that many of her poems were composed. Those warming winter fires might have been places of dreaming, but they were probably also places of reflection on the people that she met in the mill and the stories of their difficult lives, trying to make ends meet, trying to stay warm in the winter cold, trying to offer hope for their families.
I can imagine many times when the world seemed cold to Larcom, she did kindle fires in her poems and writings that inspired others to make a difference.
This is such a wonderful image for an Epiphany day. Later this afternoon I will enjoy sitting in front of a fire, sipping tea with some friends. No doubt the conversation will turn to the passions of our hearts and what Christ is calling us to do in this new year to kindle fires to warm a cold world. The light from this fire will be encouraging and around it I am certain ideas will come, answers to prayer for someone. I am inspired by these conversations, causing the flames of the fire to appear brighter and warmer.
And in these moments, I will be hopeful.
There is much that is cold in our world, many injustices that need to be recognized, acknowledged and righted. We cannot sit back and bathe in the light of Epiphany. We must work to reflect and bring the Light of the world in the dark places where evil wants to be the only thing we see.
Oh, but there is the Light–the Light of the world, the light of the kindled flames, the light in our hearts. May we all kindle fires that will warm this world and in each and every moment of this year, may our lives reflect the light of Christ, the Light of the world, the Epiphany star.
To God alone be glory!