O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the
brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known
the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him
perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he
lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
This great olive-wood crèche scene which trails down the center of the chapel came to us through the craftsmanship of Palestinian woodcarvers in Bethlehem. Aside from the baby Jesus, whom we’ve all come to adore, my favorite piece is the biggest camel, with its majestic green saddle skirt, and the wise man at its side. The Gospel tradition tells the story of wise men, living in Arabia, who brought treasure chests full of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh to present to Mary and Joseph, parents of this infant child Jesus, who was prophesied to be the Messiah.[i] There’s no record that the wise men were Jewish. They were among the many, “outside the household of faith,” who were awaiting the coming of the Messiah. They reportedly followed the sign of a star which led them to Bethlehem. Today we would probably call these wise men “astrologers” or “shamen” or “soothsayers.” There’s very little recorded about their encounter with the Holy Family. We read that they shared in the homage and joy of all those around that original crèche. However there’s no record that they “changed religions” upon meeting Jesus. (Maybe so; maybe not. We know even among our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers that Jesus is revered, and so, perhaps this was the case for these “wise men.” We don’t know.) We do know that King Herod was quite threatened by the birth of this so-called infant king, a potential rival. And Herod wanted a full report from the wise men after they had visited the newborn child. Herod was up to no good, a realization the wise men woke up to in a dream. The Gospel record reports that they avoided Herod by changing their course of travel, and “went to their home country by another way.”
As we gather here on this holy night to remember and adore Jesus, the Messiah, so many things remain unchanged since last Christmas, and the Christmas before, and for that matter ten years ago, and a 100 years, and nearly 2,000 years. The Gospel reading is the same; many of the Christmas hymns are the same; the crèche – beautiful as it is – is quite similar to crèche scenes crafted over the centuries. And outside of these chapel walls, many of the problems and challenges of our world are tragic, enduring problems, and in some ways worse than ever before. The only thing that is new, or that has the potential to be new in our meeting up again with Jesus on this Christmas celebration is the response of our own hearts: the gift of a new heart. That is, to leave here tonight, returning to a very familiar world, same as we left it hours ago, but in a new way. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, was so intrigued by the wise men in the Gospel account returning to their home country “by another way.” Father Benson said, and it can be no other way than that. “None can come to Christ at Bethlehem and go away as they came.”[ii] He writes, “the necessary thing for us is to set about old things in a new way.” Here are three ways for you to return home tonight in a new way, with the birth of Jesus lightening your path ahead:
* For one, take in the light. Face God’s light in the face of Jesus, Jesus who was called “the light of the world.”[iii] The Christmas celebration has always included light – because of the star guiding the wise men, because of tapers and oil lamps illuminating the manger in Bethlehem, and because of God’s light and life and love shining upon us in the face of Jesus. God, whose name was unspeakable, whose ways were unknowable, whose face was unseeable comes to meet us, face to face, in Jesus. God among us. God with us. God faces us in Jesus. So many times in the Psalms we hear the prayer, “show us the light of your countenance, O God.” [iv] In times of distress, it was believed that God had “hidden his face” and abandoned his people.[v] In Jesus, the face of God is lifted. Face the light and life and love of God in Jesus, who comes among us. It’s not unlike on a sunny day in winter when it feels so good to have the sun shine on your face, simply do that: dare to face God, who knows you, who sees you, and who sees into you, not in a critical light but in an adoring light. Let the light of God’s countenance dawn upon you. No need to hide. God knows you, and God adores you, you also are God’s child. 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 may also be enlightened.”[vi] As we say in slang, “lighten up,” knowing that God is the source of all light, and make use of that light to return home a different way.[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….”[viii] Presume that the reason you are yet alive, for as much as one more day, is to participate in the light and life and love of God. You are a living mirror. Bear the beams of God’s love. Let God’s light teem from your own countenance. Look upon others and be radiant with God’s love for them. They may otherwise never know how much God loves them. And what a shame to go through a day without being reminded how much God loves you. Mirror God’s light into the face of others, and with the extravagant generosity of God.
Here I’ll return to this scene of the wise men. We have no idea what their religious tradition was before they met Jesus or after they met Jesus. We do know that in Jesus they would experience God’s light and life and love. Our own ends need be no more and no less. When we mirror God’s light and life and love, the point is not for us to make Christians of other people, but to be Christians for other people. How should they know us? How should the world know us? By our love.[ix] Mirror God’s light, and life and love into the face of others, and with the extravagant generosity of God.
* And then, one last word of encouragement especially if your sense of light is flickering and your life now feels encroached by darkness. I’ll draw here on insight of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish monk and mystic. John of the Cross speaks of what he calls “the dark night of the senses,” when our normal sense of spiritual wellbeing – a gladness of heart, a sense of calm, a clear perspective on life – falls away. St. John of the Cross 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. If there’s suddenly a bright light, we are blinded, we experience a kind of darkness even though the room is flooded in light. And so it is with God. When we feel darkness in our relationship to God, it may well be because [God’s] light is so close that it blinds us, and all we ‘see’ is our own darkness.”[x] If life seems dark you just now, you are not alone in the dark. In God there is no darkness at all.[xi] Only light. Dare to open your eyes and you will become accustomed to the light.
If this Christmas 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 Jesus re-presents God Emmanuel, God 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 seems for the present to loom large, 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 wise men who look upon Jesus. Take in 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 indeed. God is with you!
“The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.” [xii]
[i] Matthew 2:1-12.
[ii] Richard Meux Benson, SSJE (1824-1915), writing in “Spiritual Readings – Christmas,” said of the wise men: “They had come to Him who was Himself the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. None can come to Christ at Bethlehem and go away as they came. The road along which this company of travelers went was itself a type of the spirit with which they went. How careful ought we to be when we have come to Jesus that we do go forward by ‘a new and living way,’ not by the way by which we came! God leads us onward. Christ is the end of all the earthly ways. They who come to Him are seeking a heavenly country, and desire not opportunity of returning to the old from whence they came out. This is true even when we have to return to the old world. Our coming to Christ changes everything, and therefore even to the old scenes we return with changed hearts and new powers. It is indeed a great thing to return to the old world by a new way of heavenly life, and to live, therefore, in the world as those who have been with Jesus, than it is to enter upon new spheres of life but with the old heart. That would be to set about new things in the old way. The necessary thing for us is rather to set about old things in a new way.”
[iii] John 8:12; 9:5.
[iv] See Psalms 4:6; 67:1; 80:3; 80:7; 80:18; 89:15; 90:8.
[v] See Deuteronomy 31:18; Psalms 30:8; 44:25; 104:29.
[vi] Ephesians 3:14-21.
[vii] A riff on Psalm 36:9.
[viii] William Blake (1757– 1827), English poet and artist.
[ix] See Romans 12:9-13; 1 Corinthians 13; 16:14; Galatians 5:22-26; Colossians 1:4; 3:14; 1 Thessalonians 3:12.
[x] From The Dark Night, in 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.
[xi] 1 John 1:5.
[xii] Numbers 6:24-26.
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