I’m sure I was introduced to the poetry of Emily Dickinson earlier than my junior year of high school, but it was in that year, that Ms. Longtine piqued my interest by reciting Dickinson’s poems with such ardor and passion that despite my fellow 11th grade friends’ snickers and whispers, I was transported. She has remained one of my favorite poets. Her writing is as fragile and as sensitive as she was. She who never worked a regular job her entire life. She who never married and lived as a recluse in many ways. She who wrote thousands of poems alone in the bedroom of her father’s house showing them to hardly anyone until they were discovered on scraps of paper after her death. Her whole life has been shrouded in secrecy, and she never referred to anyone by name in her poems. But her biographers have of late pieced together the story of a crucial even in her life.
It is believed that when she was 28, when her father was a congressman in Washington, that she stopped on the way from the capital to her home in Massachusetts to visit family friends in Philadelphia. There, apparently, she met and fell in love with a man who was to dominate her thoughts for many years. But this love story is a tragic one. For he was unattainable. He was married, and he had a family. And therefore, both being noble during those Victorian times, they prohibited themselves from being together.
Dickinson returned home, having been awakened to love, but aware that this love could never be hers and penned one of her first poems, scratching her grief and depression into these words:
Will there really be a ‘morning’?
Is there such a thing as ‘day’?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?
Oh some scholar! Oh some Sailor!
Oh some Wise Men from the skies!
Please to tell a little pilgrim
Where the place called ‘morning’ lies!
Her question was not fanciful. It was real. “Will there really be a morning?” Will there come a time when light will break upon the darkness of my soul? Will I ever see the first rays of the sun?
And so in this season of Epiphany as we ponder the light of the Christ, as we ponder the meaning of light in a season of cold and darkness we do well to consider what we can learn, and where we can be led by God into light.
Have there been times in your own lives when you have asked “Will there be a morning?” Have you ever waited through the dark hours of a long night wondering if you could make it until dawn? Have you ever known a night that lasted a week, or a month, or a year? A time when hope was hollow and you had to ask whether you could even go on?
When I ask myself this question I think of a particular night in the fall of 2007, a night when I was awakened from my sleep with the hacking seal-like coughs of a six-month-old baby who lay feverish and gasping. It was my first experience of croup with a child and in that dark night I remember rushing with a crying child from steam-filled bathroom to bundling him in blankets while we stood in the cold late October air. I remember feeling so alone, and so helpless, and the darkness felt especially close. And as I walked up and down the front walk, trying to coax Grayson into taking big gulps of that night air I wanted nothing more than to see the light. For I trusted that with light things would seem clearer, life would seem more orderly. If I could simply wait for the light to break.
The scripture from the book of Matthew this morning tells a story of light breaking, and of hope coming. The story opens in a time of darkness. Jesus had just come out of his wilderness sojourn where he was tempted and alone. And word had just been received that John, the one who inspired Jesus and baptized Jesus and was kin to Jesus had been arrested. And Jesus made his way from Nazareth to the lakeside village of Capernaum. Times were hard then. The people were oppressed. Taxes had gone higher and higher, not out of necessity but to punish the people. There was a foreign government that ruled the people with an iron fist and used espionage and threats and wrongful imprisonments to harass and punish them. And a revival leader like John the Baptist had been imprisoned, never to be released again. The people were scared. It was a time of darkness.
And it was there, into that landscape, and that political situation that Jesus burst onto the scene. It was then that Jesus, he who had never spoken a word publicly, never yet soothed a broken body with his healing touch, never told a single parable about his elusive kingdom, began his ministry. In a dusty town nestled on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum. It wasn’t a big city, wasn’t a place of culture, not somewhere well-known. Just some buildings overlooking a lake, really. A place with a reputation for being un-religious, actually. Matthew tells us that Jesus went there because it was what the Old Testament predicted. Listen: People who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And for those who sat in shadows, light had dawned. And so it was, in that place of darkness light began to shine. With no fanfare, no showmanship, no triumph. In this place Jesus began his public ministry and began to invite others to join him. And these people who he asked, they weren’t the “Who’s Who” of Capernaum, they weren’t big names, they weren’t high profile kind of guys. Instead they were laborers, common folk, fishermen. And so it was into this world, into this out-of-the-way place with these everyday people that the first rays of light first shone. And that shimmer would grow, and spread, brightness that arose from a world of darkness. Morning did come. Light did break.
I have recently finished the book Home by the British historian Bill Bryson, some of you may know of his writings. He is a social historian who makes the past come alive. And in his latest book he examines the origins of domestic life, and how the common things that we take for granted came to be. As Bryson spoke of the discovery of electricity, he told a story about life in London as the war began. The Germans would bomb the city at night, and the only protection that the British had was to blacken their windows and turn out all streetlights so there were virtually no targets for the Germans to attack. The people lived in darkness and Bryson notes that more people died in auto accidents, or by mishaps that happened because of the darkness than those who were killed by the bombings themselves. The explosions would rock the city but because of the fires that the bombings could start, fires which could trap people in basements the call when bombing started was “to the roofs!” There the people of London would place themselves, one or two to a roof, protected only by tin helmets, searching for any fires that might spring up, and then stamping them out as quickly as possible, all in darkness. Winston Churchill told the story once of looking out across London and seeing all those figures, perched on the top of the buildings, anxious and tired as the first light of dawn would break over the city. And how, more often than not, as the rays of sun would pierce the horizon audible cheers would ring from roof to roof. For morning had come, and they had made it. Light again broke the darkness.
On this chilly Sunday, on this frigid morning, we again welcome the unquenchable light that breaks upon us even in the dark nights of our own souls. The one who has been called the light of all people again walks among the common folk, and invites us to follow him, to use what gifts we have in this broken world to bring more light to the darkness. Jesus invites us, just as he invited the first disciples to cast aside our nets and walk into the first pink and orange rays of the dawn. For a new day awaits. And there is work to be done. Morning has come. And Jesus calls.