According to Navy legend, once upon a time, in the early days of naval radar, a United States aircraft carrier called the USS Constitution was making its way into British waters. The Radar operator spotted a blip on his screen, directly in the path of the mighty carrier. So the Captain radioed ahead and said "Unknown Vessel, please change your course by 20 degrees to avoid a collision".
The radio crackled, and a reply came back. "Unable to comply. You change your course." The captain picked up the radio again. "Listen, this is a naval vessel - heading straight for your co-ordinates. Now change your course, or risk being sent to the bottom of the ocean".
The radio crackled again, and the reply came back, "We were here first. You change your course!" By now, the captain of the mighty war machine was incandescent with rage. "Listen, you little British pip-squeek. This is the USS Constitution - the largest air-craft carrier in the world. We won't even feel you when we run over you. Now move!"
The radio crackled for a third time. "This is the Eddystone Lighthouse. Your move."
There's something really special about lighthouses, isn't there? As a boy, I used to spend holidays in the fishing town of Brixham, down in deepest Devon. I loved watching the Berry-head lighthouse, streaming its beam out over the waters. There's something deeply comforting about the regular, pulsating light...the swoop of the beam...the knowledge that this light is making this bit of coastline safe.
Today we are celebrating the feast of Candlemass. Now, being from a rather low church background, this is not a feast that I have particularly encountered before. So I've done a bit of digging on the Internet to try and discover what its all about. According to the Oracle of All Knowledge (also known as Wikipedia - see this link for more details), Candlemass is the time when members of the Orthodox church bring beeswax candles to church to have them blessed by the priest - candles that will be used throughout the year.
The blessing takes place, in some places, after an all-night vigil. So, if we were really to be 'doing' Candlemas properly, we should have been here in church all night...and you should have all brought candles to be blessed at the Eucharist. Next year perhaps?!
Ultimately, of course, however it is celebrated, the symbolism is all about light. It stems from the reading for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple - the gospel we heard just now. As you know, when Christ had been presented, Simeon the Righteous declared that he had seen the promised Messiah - and that he was now content to die. Crucially, he described Jesus as 'a light'...a light to the non-Jewish world, as well as glory (which is another light-related metaphor)...glory for the people of Israel.
Light is a theme which permeates the whole bible - just like the search-beam of a lighthouse. God's first command, according the Great Legend of Genesis was 'Let there be light'. God led the Israelites through the Sinai Desert by a pillar of fire...a great light. Jesus is described as the light of men, and the light of the world. As we heard last week, Saul was struck by a light on the road to Damascus. And on the nearly the last page of the Bible, in chapter 21 of the book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem is lit not by the sun or the moon, but by the glory of God, and the Lamb, who is described as the light.
Of course, this is all metaphor. We are not meant to picture Jesus as if he had somehow transformed himself into a lighthouse...with super-trooper beams coming out of his eyes! "Tonight the Super-trooper beams are going to blind me, shining like the Sun". Jesus is not an extra from Mamma Mia! Instead, this powerful metaphor is meant to make us ask what life might be like if it was lived in God's way...if life could be lived fully 'in the light' of the teachings of God.
Now, this is the point in many sermons on light when the preacher will give you a list of things you can do to be someone who lives in the light of God. But you don't need me to do that. You know what the difference is between a life that embraces the light and a life that embraces the dark. You know it instinctively...because God's light is in you. You know the difference between getting and giving, between hating and loving. You simply need to decide which way you want to live. No, I'm not going to give you a list of things you should do. Instead, I want to tell you a little story...
I was standing on the steps of St Mark's last week. I was looking around at the whole area. I saw a woman, walking past the church, with a toddler in a pushchair, clutching a balloon. I saw people at the recycling bins, doing their bit to save the planet. I saw a young couple coming out of Blockbusters, bag of DVDs in hand, preparing themselves for a movie-night. I saw a seagull swooping down to pick up some random piece of food off the car-park floor. Pidgeons perched on our church roof. I saw an old woman, making her way carefully along the cracked paving stones. I saw litter - the evidence of little moments of fun - skittering along in the wind. I saw a thousand and one little details of life...all taking place in front of me...here, in our own community.
Suddenly, I seemed to see things differently. It was if God was shining the beam of a light-house across Derby Road. I saw all these things not as the normal humdrum activity of a typical day in North End...but as a moment in time, pregnant with all sorts of possibilities. I saw all these people, all these creatures, going about their daily lives...and I suddenly felt a huge sense of awe at the incredible beauty in front of me. Beauty? In North End? Yes I know what you are thinking. You're thinking I've been working too hard...and I've finally cracked. But no. I think, just for a moment, I got a glimpse of how God sees the world.
God's light is like a golden glow...and extra dimension of seeing, that we are sometimes able to just perceive, on the edge of our consiousness. It's a way of seeing beyond the mess and the chaos, and instead beginning to see the interconnectedness of all things. It's a way of seeing this world of ours, the beautiful mountains, and the litter-strewn streets as all, all the people, all the animals, all of life somehow, radiant with the glory of God.
So I just stood there...and tried to take it all in. I couldn't of course. I'm not God. I can only 'see through a glass darkly' to use St Paul's phrase. But just for a moment...I caught of glimpse of what life in the light of God could really be like.
Seeing the world, and ourselves, in God's light means seeing ourselves as indivisibly connected to all that there is...all of us are the children of God. This entire planet is God's creation. We can all become caught up in the dance of God, if we will only open our eyes to follow his steps.
As I've thought about that experience, through the rest of this week, I've wondered what it might mean...for me, and for all of us. I wonder if we all could glimpse just how truly connected we all are, what that might do to the way we live our lives. Could it be that we could discover, together, even more of what it means to live as a community of people who love one another...who bear with one another, who forgive one another, who offer the hand of support to one another. Perhaps we would truly begin to grasp the idea that whatever love we show to one another, it is love that we show to our Lord as well.
In 1997, the pop group 'Katrina and the Waves' stormed to victory at the Eurovision Song Contest with a song called 'Love Shine a Light'. They won by a margin of 70 points (soixante-dix points!) over the Irish runner up...because their song made such a hit with the audience. Here are some of the words of that song:
Love Shine a light in every corner of our hearts,
let the love light carry, let the love light carry
Light up the magic in every little part,
let our love shine a light in every corner of our hearts.
And we're all gonna shine a light together
all shine a light to light the way
Brothers and sisters in every little part,
let our love shine a light in every corner of our hearts.
That's my prayer for all of us in this parish...that we will begin to shine the light of God's love all around this place. Such light, such love, has the power to transform lives, and to transform ourselves.
If only we will watch for the light-house beam of God as it sweeps across our church, our families and our lives.
And now - as a special treat - Sarah Leslie is going to perform that very song from which I just quoted. Perhaps you'd like to listen to her words, and ponder what it might mean for your life, if you just let the light of God in through your windows.