Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your evangelist John the Beloved, may so walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 John 1:1-9
Saint John the Evangelist, whom we know as the Beloved Disciple, was enlightened to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, and walked in his light. This theme of light is so prominent in the Gospel according to John and in the Epistles of John, from which we have heard this evening; we walk in the light as Jesus himself is in the light. And it is no accident that this theme of light figures so prominently into our Christmastide celebrations.
The festive lights we customarily see most everywhere this time of year – decorating the streets and shop windows, on Christmas trees, and with candles in windows and on dinner tables – actually have a Christian history, but probably not a Christian origin. Only since the fourth century has Christmas been celebrated on December 25th.i We know this from the Roman almanac. Prior to the fourth century, the date remembered for Christ’s birth – if it were celebrated at all – depended on local custom. In the fourth century, with the Emperor Constantine becoming Christian, much of the former pagan empire became the Holy Roman Empire. The followers of Jesus who, heretofore were haunted by threats of persecution and who had to meet clandestinely for worship, now were in the ascendancy. They claimed the Roman basilicas as their own houses of worship. The pattern of attire of the Roman senators and patricians was transformed into the vestments of clergy; and the cultic calendar of ancient Rome was, in a number of ways, merged or “baptized” by the church. The reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th is not clear; however it is probably because the early Christians wanted the date to coincide with a festival of the Roman Empire on December 25th which marked the “birthday of the unconquered sun god” – natalis solis invicti. This Roman festival celebrated the winter solstice, when the days again began to lengthen and the sun rose higher in the sky: December 25th.ii And so, returning to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, we see how light has merged into our Christmastide celebrations. Remember how the shepherds and, later, the Magi, found their way to the Christ child by the light of a starry night. In later years, the Gospel of John would say of Jesus, the Messiah, “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”iii Jesus even says of himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”iv
We crave light. Whether or not we consciously understand the history and symbolism of the festal light we see during Christmastide, we do innately crave light. Whether we suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or whether we are afraid of “things that go bump in the night,”v or whether we simply feel that we’re “in the dark” about the mystery of our own life, we crave light and enlightenment, especially some seasons of our lives. The holiday lights we see most everywhere are reminders of how common and how deep this craving for real light actually is, and its symbolism goes to the depths of our souls. Here are some word pictures of about light:
- In the Genesis creation story, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void, and darkness was everywhere. On the first day, God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And it was good. Do you recall, though, that it was not until the fourth day in the creation story that the sun and moon and stars of the sky were created?vi Which is to say God’s light precedes the light of the sun, moon, and stars, the light we can see with our eyes. It can make a remarkable difference in your day, in your life, to face God’s light. Not unlike on a sunny day in winter when it feels so good to have the sun shine on your face, simply do that: to face God, who knows you, who sees you, and who sees into you, not in a critical light but in an adoring light. You are God’s child, God’s beloved disciple. Let the light of God’s countenance shine on you. No need to hide. God knows, and God knows you, and the only way you will know how much God knows you and loves you is to face God, the source of all enlightenment, so that “the eyes of your [own] heart also be enlightened” by God’s light.vii
- Mirror that light into the face of others, and with the extravagant generosity of God. William Blake writes, “We are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love….” Presume that the reason you are alive is to participate in the light and life and love of God. You are a living mirror of that light.viii Bear the beams of God’s lovely light. Look upon others and be radiant with God’s love for them. They may otherwise never know how much God loves them. And what shame to go through a day without being reminded how much God loves us. Mirror that lovely light of God into the face of others, and with the extravagant generosity of God.
- If the light of God seems occluded from you just now, here is what hurts and here is what helps. What hurts is anger, resentment, disdain, envy. This will crimp the conduit of God’s light into your soul, and without that light you will feel lost in the dark. Anger, resentment, disdain, envy block the light and leaves you opaque with nothing, certainly nothing good, to reflect. And that hurts deeply and needs to be purged from your soul: anger, resentment, disdain, envy hurts. It blocks the light. What helps is thankfulness. Thankfulness is like a router; it’s like angioplasty to the soul. At this very moment, if you are not deeply in touch with gratitude, then you don’t know what you’re missing… but you can find out very quickly. Simply be thankful, now. Be thankful for your ability to breathe the fragrance of frankincense and pine; for the colors red and green and golden; for music and harmony and ears to hear it; for the ability to walk; for heat; for a bed on which to sleep tonight; for people, especially for those who have stood by you and not forgotten you. On and on you could go. Living gratefully could be a way of praying without ceasing. Life seeming like a gift to you, which it is. And it could also make a world of difference to others.
Several days ago I was sharing a conversation with someone who was, as they said, “in the doldrums” about Christmas. They said, “It just isn’t like it used to be. It’s too bad; it’s really sad,” they said. And so I asked them how it used to be? They spoke of Christmastide almost like it was a scene out of the Nutcracker Suite: gingerbread and candies; everyone getting along; laughter and delight; and Jesus in the crèche. It was a sense of innocence… or maybe it was just ignorance,” they said. “Now we have instant news and the worldwide web, and I feel stuck in the web. I know too much, and it’s too bad.” I found this conversation quite moving, and I listened to this person with much empathy, more than they might have known. They finally asked me if I could give them some spiritual direction so that they could get back to the way they used to feel at Christmas? “Well,” I told them after a pause and in half-jest, “Maybe you should take one of those charter flights to Minneapolis and spend a day at the Mall of America!” We laughed together, and I told them I was being a little outrageous, and then I admitted I didn’t know how to help them get back to the way things were. And I don’t.
There’s no going back to either a real or an imagined past. The time is past, and the wound of knowledge is indelible.ix I told this person what I would say to you: if reading the newspaper, and surfing the web, and listening to NPR with news from Washington and Detroit, from Gaza and Baghdad, from Congo and Haiti, is inescapably heavy this Christmas season, bear this news just like the Virgin Mary bears her son into a very violent and unjust world. Jesus comes to us as God Emmanuel, God with us, and God with everyone else, too. Rather than experiencing the sorrows of our world as a source of desolation, hear the news as a clarion call, as motivation and clarification for what we are to be about as followers of Jesus Christ. We are to bear the beams of God’s light and life and love, especially to those who wouldn’t otherwise know it. You are a Christmas gift. Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. …Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”x If you were still to say, there doesn’t seem to be much light in me right now… you might be surprised. In a dark place, even a little bit of light will have a brilliant effect. You are teeming with light.
One last word about light in darkness, drawing on the insight of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic. John of the Cross speaks of what he calls “the dark night of the senses,” when our normal spiritual consolations – good feelings, stillness, insights – fall away. He says those moments are like standing in a dark room. We become accustomed to the dark and can make out the vague shapes of a table here, a chair there. But if someone suddenly brings in a bright light, we are momentarily blinded – we experience a kind of darkness even though the room is flooded in light. Likewise, when we feel complete darkness in prayer, it may be because [God’s] light is so close that it blinds us, and all we “see” is our own darkness.xi If you are in the dark, you are not alone in the dark. If this Christmastide you are asking the question, maybe desperately, whether God is with you, I suggest you rephrase the question. The question is not whether God is with you, but how God is with you? Because God Emmanuel is with you, and with the rest of us, whether here or near or far away, all around this world. Whether the landscape of your soul is brightly illuminated just now, or whether you are temporarily blinded by more light than you can bear, or whether the darkness simply seems too loom large, it is “the close and holy darkness.”xii God is with you. Take the risk of being as adventurous and as courageous as the Virgin Mary, Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, the shepherds, the wisemen, the Beloved Disciple, who believe it be so: God is light. Receive the light, and then bear the beams of God’s light and life and love with extravagance. There’s more where it all came from: God’s light, to lighten the way. Which is good news, very good news.
i The ce 336 Roman almanac notes the December 25th celebration of Christmas.
ii Hebrews 1:3.
iii John 1:4.
iv John 8:12.
v A traditional Scottish prayer: “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord, deliver us!”
vi See Genesis 1:1-19.
vii Ephesians 3:14-21.
viii The great abbess, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), says that “God made you mirrors of all heaven’s graces.”
ix The phrase, “wound of knowledge,” comes from the poetry of R. S. Thomas (1913 – 2000): “… Yet he dreamed on in curves and equations with the smell of saltpeter in his nostrils, and saw the hole in God’s side that is the wound of knowledge and thrust his hand in it and believed.”
x Matthew 5:14-16.
xi “The Dark Night,” from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, rev. ed., trans Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD (ICS Publications, 1991); from bk. 1, ch. 8, #1, p. 375.
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