The Chilly Light of Epiphany: Mitchel Modine

Our first blog post of 2019 comes to us from Mitchel Modine, a charter member of NazToo. He and his wife Marnie, a native of the Philippines, serve as missionaries for the Church of the Nazarene. Mitch is Professor of Old Testament at Asia-Pacific Nazarene Theological Seminary near Manila. Marnie is currently the Asia-Pacific Regional Secretary for the Church of the Nazarene. They met on the seminary campus after Mitch arrived in 2008, and will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary on 7 July 2019.

When Steve Fountain first asked me to do this a year ago, I was in the middle of several writing projects, but I still thought I would be able to do this in time. Over the next few months, I scratched out a few thoughts here and there, but did not really get a lot going. In April, I talked to Steve again, and I told him I was making good progress. He kidded me that I was too early; at that time, my post was scheduled for October. Steve wrote me again in September asking if I could delay publication a few months, and I said it was no problem, because my post was not season-specific. (At that time, it was not, but now, as you will see, it is.) So, I put it on the back burner while I worked on the other thing that is due—was due—in December, which still is not done when I am writing this, but it will be, I think, I hope, I pray.

Unless a loved one is a writer, or you yourself are a writer, I suspect you do not really care about the process. Nevertheless, I went through a number of different drafts before I finally settled on what you see before you. None of them made me particularly happy, so my thoughts returned every so often to this post and I became a little more anxious about it, even as my anxiety over the other project increased apace. As late as the middle of December, I was left without anything, and now the deadline was looming closer. In the other December 31-due date project, I finally figured out a good plan and started working on it in earnest a few days into December, but for this I had nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. I was in the dark. I had no light. I had no idea what I was going to do, until…

Until a friend of mine posted a yearly retrospective thing on Facebook. I didn’t see it until the morning of December 12, but he wrote it on the evening of December 10 from his home near Philadelphia. This friend is someone I knew in graduate school. He was a few years ahead of me and on the “other side” of the Biblical Studies Area: New Testament. A bit of background on him is necessary. He was raised in the Restorationist Movement (Church of Christ), and had actually studied for pastoral ministry before turning his attention to serious academic study of early Christianity. In a way, his story mirrors mine: I also had been preparing to be a pastor, and changed focus toward pursuing a PhD in Old Testament while in seminary. When we were in school together, he called himself a “committed secularist,” meaning he had left Christianity and religion altogether. Some years after I came to Manila, I learned that he had converted to Judaism and I remember being so happy that my friend had returned to faith. This point should not be missed: I am happy that my friend returned to faith, and my friendship with him is not at all dependent on what faith he returned to.

Anyway, at the time of writing, my friend had just completed the Festival of Hannukah, the Festival of Lights. He wrote a long post about friends, those whom he has seen recently and those whom he has missed seeing for some time. He included a delightful phrase that set me ablaze: a nice metaphor for Hannukah if ever there was. Come to think of it, it’s also a good metaphor for Advent. They usually occur around the same time, of course. He wrote: “If you’ve celebrated Hannukah, I hope you’ve left the table full. If you’re still in the chilly dark of Advent, I wish you well in your coming celebration.”

The chilly dark of Advent.

Every now and again, I read a phrase that really takes my breath away. I read a lot—this comes with the territory of being an academic—and like many I make copious notes in the margins of print books. One of my common marks to make in a book is to underline a nice turn of phrase or particularly apt metaphor or vivid image and write, in the margin, GQ, my shorthand for “Great Quote.” I usually then forget about whatever it was that caused me to call that quote great. If I happen to pick up that book again, I linger over these GQs, only to forget them again once I turn my attention to something else. But, on occasion, one such GQ sticks with me, and I suspect that it will continue to arrest my attention, especially whenever the thing it was associated with happens again, whether or not I again pick up the book where I first read and marked the thing.

I am convinced “the chilly dark of Advent” will be one of those phrases that will never leave me. I doubt I will ever read my friend’s Facebook post again: a testament to the impermanence of that medium, even less substantial than an e-book (to which, incidentally, I do not typically add many comments). Though I did screenshot his entire post, I might not even keep those pictures (it required two). But the phrase will stay with me. The chilly dark of Advent. “If you’re still in the chilly dark of Advent, I wish you well in your coming celebration.”

The chilly dark of Advent. “If you’re still in the chilly dark of Advent, I wish you well in your coming celebration.” Where I live, it never gets chilly. Though some places in the Philippines like Baguio City in the northern mountains do get rather cold, in Manila the temperature almost never falls below 25 C (77 F), and for eight or nine months in the year it is typically much hotter than that, and oppressively humid besides. It also does not seem any darker here during this season than it does other times of the year. The Philippines does not observe “summer time” or “daylight savings time” or whatever one may call it. Also, because Manila is only 15 degrees north of the equator, the times of sunrise and sunset vary as little as a half-hour one way or the other all year long.

Nevertheless, every year I and all of the Christian world experience “the chilly dark of Advent.” Aside from my friend’s delightful phrase, I find his acknowledgment of other religious traditions and their special days heartwarming. He ended his post by saying that he would see us on the other side of Solstice, which is yet another nod to the divergent ways people mark the time. I once reposted a meme which suggested that one should say “Happy Holidays” because, in this time of the year, some x number of religious traditions celebrate y number of holidays and “mine aren’t the only ones that matter.” I got some pushback from expected quarters on that, but I still think it is right.

The chilly dark of Advent. As the candles get lit—at the time of writing it is the middle of the Second Week, so just under halfway to go—the darkness increasingly fades away. Advent is chilly and dark, but the lights come in, quietly, slowly, building up to the grand celebration of the Nativity and the lighting of the big white one in the middle, the Christ Candle. The Christian season of Advent mirrors the Festival of Hannukah in that way, though with fewer lights, lit more slowly, and for a different reason. My friend cited the rabbis, who suggested that the point of the miracle is not the light that lasted the whole eight days, but the hope of the first day, when all seemed darkness and grim and hopelessness and death. He wrote: “the holiday is the firm, determined, ‘no,’ spoken by the sound of a match strike in a dark room.” The hope of lighting the lights, whether the lights of Hannukah or the lights of Advent and Nativity and Epiphany, is a defiant shout into the darkness, that the darkness has not overcome the light (John 1:5), and that those who walk in the light, as Jesus is in the light, know the blood of Jesus cleanses them from all sin (1 John 1:7).

I knew very little about the Christian Calendar until I came to seminary. I was, in a phrase I like to use, a “Christmas and Easter Christian.” I intend by this not the usual meaning among pastors: fringe members of the community who only attend on the two most important times of the year. Instead, I take this phrase to mean a more-frequent or even most- or all-Sundays attender, who nevertheless only recognizes those two. I do not count myself among those who sniff at confusing Christmas with Advent, but I do share with them a deep appreciation for the fullness of time, so to speak. Though I am not and never will be involved in pastoral ministry, I enjoy the rhythm of the Christian year, which connects the content of key seasons to the experience of the physical year. For example, Advent, Nativity, and Epiphany together form a complex of principal celebrations during the winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Yes, it is not cold and snowy everywhere in the world in this time, but this triad does occur in the Winter in Israel, where the events these seasons commemorate took place. The average temperature in Israel during the months of November–January is 15 C (59 F). Snow and cold are often associated with death and dreariness and darkness. Or, in a phrase, chilly dark. The chilly dark of Advent.

“If you’re still in the chilly dark of Advent, I wish you well in your coming celebration.” Now that I have pondered over my friend’s greeting some more, I think if I met him for coffee or some other potable, I would offer him a gentle critique of his wording, on two levels. On the one hand, Advent may begin in the chilly dark (in the North and the West anyway), but it does not end that way. On the other hand, Advent is a preparatory time for the coming celebration, but then it is in its own right a celebration, a growing, slow advance of hope. We experience a waning of the light, as the days grow shorter, closer and closer to the shortest day of the year, ironically just a few days before Nativity. We experience increasingly cold and bitter days, when we would rather stay in yet we cannot because responsibilities do not end even in Winter. But then…

Then we strike a match. Then we say our defiant No! to the dark. To borrow and slightly alter my friend’s words again, the season of Advent “is the firm, determined, ‘no,’ spoken by the sound of a match strike in a dark room.” The lights are lit slowly, painfully slowly, one per week for four long weeks, as the darkness of the short days grows ever deeper. The Advent candles are not the same as the Hannukah candles, and Advent is not the same as Hannukah, but both of them are, in the context of the religious traditions in which they participate, a shout against the dark. The lights of Advent move slowly, deliberately—unlike the shout of God into the dark of creation: “Let there be light!” The lights of Advent move slowly, deliberately—unlike turning on a light when you enter a dark room. The darkness at creation fled away at the shout of God, and the darkness in a room flees away at the approach of the light: there is no struggle between them; there is no certainly about whether dark or light will prevail. But Advent is a struggle. The lights of Advent move slowly, deliberately—unlike the rapidly approaching, suffocating darkness which is Holy Week. Especially in Holy Week, but now in Advent and in Epiphany—when, respectively, the lights are quickly marching out, choked by the darkness; and slowly marching in, invading the darkness—I always try to adopt for myself the same mindset as John Wheelwright in A Prayer for Owen Meany: “I am terrified that, this year, [the Resurrection] won’t happen.” For Advent: maybe, this year, the Baby will be still-born. For Epiphany: maybe, this year, the Wise Ones will report to the king rather than helping to protect the King.

The lights of Advent move slowly, deliberately, until on the Feast of the Nativity we light the big white Christ Candle. Then the Nativity Season has finally begun, running through January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany is Christianity’s answer to Hannukah, the festival of the light shining in the darkness. The strike of the match is the sound of hope, hope shouting its defiant No! against the dark. Dylan Thomas wrote to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” but the triad of Winter celebrations—Advent, Nativity, Epiphany—represent the slow, steady, deliberate march of the light into, and against, and over, the darkness. When the lights are all lit, we should leave them lit at least until the Epiphany. For Epiphany is the rage for the dying of the dark. The dark of Winter comes to a shining, flaming, gleaming, radiant end with the Epiphany, also called the Theophany—the revelation of the Christ to the Gentiles. The three seasons go together, inextricably. If they are celebrated separately, their worth is tarnished, and the light is put under a bowl.

The chilly dark of Advent leads into the chilly light of Epiphany: there is still darkness and dreariness and death all about, but the match has been struck. It is still cold and the days are still short, but the darkness and the bleakness do not have the last word. At the Winter Solstice, the days are at their shortest, and immediately begin their inexorable journey toward their highest point six months later at the Summer Solstice. Yet even at this darkest point of the world, we rage against the dying of the light. And we rage for the dying of the dark. This struggle between the light and the dark is part of the rhythm of life, which the Christian Calendar, among other things, recognizes. It reminds me of the despair turned into defiant joy of the hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day:”

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep,
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

As we journey into the chilly light of Epiphany, may we strike a match in the dark. Life is a struggle: let us rage against the dying of the light, and rage for the dying of the dark.