Sunday, January 6, 2019

"The Light of the World"

The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika

Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12

The Rev. Dr. Mitsuo Aoki was a pioneer of Hawai’i‘s hospice movement and founder of the University of Hawai’i School of Religion. He died in August 2010.

His therapeutic work with terminally-ill cancer patients; the death of his wife of Evelyn; his own near-death experience and thoughts about his own mortality shaped his own attempts to take the terror out of dying and show others how to experience death as not just the end of life, but as a vital part of life, as well (Mitsuo Aoki: PBS Hawai‘i Presents Living Your Dying, October 2, 2018). I sat in a session with Aoki while an undergraduate student at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo over forty years ago.

He had a wonderful sense of humor and a disarming smile. He talked about how important it was to be present in the moment with those who were dying leaving whatever judgements we may have behind and to get out of the way and to listen.

The temptation for those of us who are Christians at the bedside of those who are dying is to presume that our task is to save those who are dying from eternal damnation by compelling them to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior – all the while missing the presence of God’s Spirit in such a holy moment. Aoki described how on more than one occasion a dying person would often describe seeing a light off in the distance. Whether the person was hallucinating, having a vision or seeing a family member “on the other side,” the light was never seen as a threat.

The prophet Isaiah wrote centuries ago, “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 to you” in unexpected places and in unexpected people (Isaiah 60:1-2).

I remember Aoki saying that when such moments come to a person, he would always encourage him or her to “go to the light.” Over the years, I have come to believe more and more that that light is the light of the heaven breaking through.

Today is Epiphany Sunday. It is one of seven feasts celebrated in the Christian church. It is fixed on the calendar to come after the twelfth day of Christmas. It is one of the oldest feasts dating back to the start of the second century.

It is a time when we remember the coming of the magi, guided by the light of a star that broke through the heavens, and the “manifestation” or “showing forth” of God’s love in the birth of the Christ Child. The story of the magi offering gifts of “gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11) to the Christ Child at his birth is one that we know. We have grown up with the tradition of being told there were “three kings” who brought three gifts.

Yet we also know, upon a closer reading of the story, that Matthew does not specify that there were three magi. We don’t know exactly how many may have made the journey to Bethlehem, but “tradition” seems to equate the number of magi with the number of gifts that were offered.

“Because tradition has concentrated on the three gifts given by the three magi,” we miss something in the passage that is more central to its understanding and that is the Greek word proskyneō. It occurs three times – “at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the story (Matthew 2:2, 8, 22; Feasting on the Word, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 213). Whether or not there were three magi or three gifts, what is far more significant is how the story is given its purpose, direction and culmination through those who came to bow down and pay homage to the Christ Child.

The magi, known as the “wise ones” understand this child to be a divine gift a future ruler of some sort to be worshipped and honored (Seasons of the Spirit, SeasonsFUSION, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany 2015-2016, Woodlake Publishing Inc., 2015).

For Herod news of the birth was troubling. He was not only frightened by the news, but “all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3). When Herod called on the magi to seek out the Christ Child so that he too may “pay homage to him” he did so out of fear. He recognized that whatever it was that compelled the magi to venture forth on their long and arduous journey to an unknown location to pay homage to a newborn child, it was a threat to his power.

Rather than arrest the magi for their threat to the Roman Empire, he sought to engage their help in locating the one whom they have come to find. The magi found the child and as they entered the house where they saw the child with Mary they did not offer him the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Instead, it is said that they first knelt down – they got down on their knees – and paid homage to him. Then they offered their gifts. “Only after this act of worship, only after giving themselves completely to [the] Christ [Child], do they present their material gifts” (Ibid., page 217).

The journey of the magi is our journey. Like them we come to “pay homage” to the Christ Child (Ibid., page 215).

Today is Epiphany Sunday. Today also marks our annual ‘Aha ‘Aina Wai Maka or Feast of Tears. For our Hawaiian kūpuna ancestors, it was celebrated to mark the first anniversary of a person’s death. It was the understanding of our kūpuna that tears of sorrow were initially shed at the time of a loved one’s death.

The ‘Aha ‘Aina Wai Maka was seen as an occasion when tears would again be shed but this time not out of sorrow but out of joy – for all of the pain and suffering are pau, done and even death itself is no more. There is no darkness, only light.

Today we remember family and friends who have died in 2018 and for whom a memorials service was held in and through this church. We remember and celebrate the lives of:

Kahu: Brenda Albright, Lincoln, California and Wailea, Maui; Webb Ernest “Skip” Beggs, III, formerly, Kīhei, Maui, Jackson Springs, North Carolina; Phillip Raymond Betti, Kīhei, Maui; and Keith Grant Campbell, Paukūkalo, Maui.

Liturgist: Charles Loyd Caron, Santa Rosa, California; Thomas Douma, Kīhei, Maui; and Janis Elliot, Carmel, California.

Kahu: Rodman Lent Hooker, Jr., Indian Wells, California; Ursula Joy, Galiano, British Columbia; Gregory Dean Kaufman, Ha’ikū, Maui; and Calvin Kuamo‘o, Kahakuloa.

Liturgist: Frieda Klopfhenstein, Houston, Texas; Reneée Lulof, Kīhei, Mau; Carol Minnich, Kīhei, Maui; and Walter Eden Raikes, Kula, Maui.

Kahu: Carol Danielson Suzuki, Wailea; George Edward Swindells, Seattle, Washington; Kay Tamaribuchi, Wailuku, Maui; John Richard Walker, Palo Alto; Levern Horvey, Cabri, Saskatchewan; and Emma Salter.

The magi who came from the East bearing gifts were led by the light of a star to the place Jesus was born. Like the magi we offer more than gold, frankincense and myrrh. We offer the gift of our aloha as we pay homage to the Christ Child and as we remember and celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us.

We give thanks to God that whether in birth or death, Jesus is the One who is the Light of the World. Amen.

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