In the Midst of Death We Are in Life – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis AlmquistJohn 20:24-29

I’ve been remembering lots of Christmas tunes that come out of my childhood, popular songs you can still hear performed on YouTube and on television specials this time of year: the pop star Andy Williams’ singing “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year…” And “It’s a Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “The Little Drummer Boy.”  On it goes, so many of the lyrics full of joy and celebration, of wonder and innocence.  And all the color and tinsel that fill the shops, and hang on trees, and pop up on are intent on evoking wonderful expectations this time of year.

So it might seem ill-timed for us to remember the martyrdom of Thomas, the Apostle, in such close proximity to the joyful celebration of Christmas.  But it’s no accident.  It’s all about light and the absence of light.  By the fourth century, the western church was celebrating Christmas at the time of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, when we long for light. By the ninth century, the western church had also fixed the date of St. Thomas’ martyrdom around the winter solstice: the date of celebration for Christmas because Christ Jesus is born as “the light of the world,” who comes to us in the darkest night;  and Thomas, who was dubbed “the doubter” among the disciples, remembered on the darkest night, (1) symbolizing doubt and despair, because Thomas experiences a revelation from Jesus.  The scriptures call Jesus “the bright morning star,” who “dawns upon us from on high.” (2) These tandem dates for the death of St. Thomas and the birth of Christ Jesus are all about our need for light, for hope, and for help when we are in outer or inner darkness.

Both light and darkness, birth and death, are a reality of life.  In the funeral liturgy, we recall an ancient anthem, “In the midst of life we are in death,” and the converse is also true: “in the midst of death we are in life.” (3) To be fully alive, we need to be conversant with both life and death, with both light and darkness.

This season, you may be very aware of darkness in your own soul.  You may be sad, or grieving, or feeling quite alone and hopeless.  Here is some help.  For one, light a candle.  Quite literally.  When you are in the dark, even the smallest source of light will illumine the gloom and give you your bearings.  You will no longer be groping.  Light a candle, take Jesus at his word that he is the “light of the world,” the light of your world, and pray that Jesus’ light enlighten the eyes of your heart. (4)  Pray with light; pray for light.  In the beginning, God created light, and it still shines.  Claim the light.

Secondly, remember the light.  In the sixteenth century, Ignatius of Loyola said that if your soul is in darkness and desolation, stay the course; be patient, the consoling dawn will come; and remember, remember from where you’ve come, which was not always dark. (5) Our memory is a wonderful conduit for hope in darkness.  This evening, if we stepped outside the chapel and I were to tell you, as I pointed to the dark sky, that in a matter of hours this dark sky would be so bright you would need to shield your eyes… you would laugh at me.  That kind of light coming from this kind of darkness would be absolutely unimaginable… unless you had sometime before seen the dawn of a new day, seen the brightness of the sun.  If you had ever before seen the light of day come out of the darkness of night, then rather than your hearing me speaking crazy-talk, you would have heard me giving you a reminder.  I would have reminded you what you may have forgotten, that the dawning of light will come.  It will come.  If this is a miserably dark night for your soul, draw on your memory.  The seeds of hope are sewn in your past.  Draw on your miracle memory as a channel of hope for the present and future.  The dawn will come, as you know.  Remember that.

Thirdly, if life seems dark for you this season, you may have too much light.  Too much light is blinding.  I want to speak here symbolically.  Let the light out.  Let the light flow.  Let the light of Christ teem from your countenance to someone or to some place that is in darkness.  And there are so many people and places who will not know Christ’s light, Christ’s joy to the world without the intervention of God’s light and life and love… through you.  You can make the light of Christ real.

Think of the children and their families slaughtered in Pakistan or, closer to home, in Newtown and elsewhere.  Think of families who are seared by injustice because of racial prejudice or other discrimination in our own country.  Think of those whose families who are haunted by handgun violence.  Think of those around the world who now live as political refugees in Palestine, in Syria, Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere; of those who are fleeing for their lives because of the Ebola crisis, or because of civil unrest or persecution. Think of those who have lost their jobs, lost their homes, lost their loved ones, lost their health.  Think of God’s creation, groaning in travail in so many places because of humankind’s greed and pollution.  There are so many places and people now shrouded in darkness.  Be a light-bearer.  Pray that the light of Christ be mirrored in your countenance, through your prayer, through your voice, through writing, through your giving.  Don’t squander the light; don’t hide the light, but let it shine. (6)

At Christmas we don’t just remember the birth of Christ Jesus, we ourselves become Christ bearers.  The German Dominican, Meister Eckhart, wrote in the fourteenth century, “What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?  This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.” (7) Receive the light of Christ; radiate the light of Christ.

This season of the year is mixed.  Quite a bit of darkness outside, so we need to seize and bear the light.  There is both joy and sorrow, birth and death.  We remember today the suffering and death of St. Thomas, and immediately after Christmas, the suffering and death of another martyr, Stephen, and then the children of Bethlehem, the killing of the Holy Innocents.  And, in between, the great Christmas celebration, full of the innocence, wonder, hope, and love of new birth.  It is a mixed season.  We have the ability and the need to be on good speaking terms with the best of life and the worst of life.  It’s what St. Paul calls the capacity to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep those who weep.” (8) We can do both; we need to do both to be fully alive with the life God has entrusted to us, and to help others know the same: God’s light, and life, and love for them this season.  Receive the light of Christ; beam the light of Christ with great generosity.

  1.  John 8:12; 9:5.
  2.  See Revelation 22:16  “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”  See also Matthew 2:2; Luke 1:78.
  3.  The Book of Common Prayer, “The Burial of the Dead: Rite II,” from the opening anthem, p. 491.
  4.  “The eyes of your heart,” a riff from Ephesians 1:18.
  5.  This is a paraphrase from “The Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), Spanish knight, priest, and founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).
  6.  A riff on Matthew 5:15.
  7.  Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1327), a German Dominican and prolific writer, especially on the theme of the union between the human soul and God.
  8.  Romans 12:15.

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  1. N. Bol on December 23, 2020 at 10:45

    Dear Brother Curtis,

    Grateful for your presence in our lives.
    Thank you for once again sharing your gifts.

  2. M. Lockhart on December 23, 2020 at 09:07

    “You may have too much light. … Let the light out. Let the light flow. Let the light of Christ teem from your countenance….”
    This is wonderful and inspiring! Thank you!

  3. Carney Ivy on December 23, 2020 at 06:39

    Dear Br. Curtis,
    This is quite timely for 2020 and for me. You share your heart so well and so eloquently. Your example (and all the brothers) helps me start my day. My problem is keeping the “light” going throughout the day. I slip into my old ways. Thank you for another beautiful sermon. Hopefully, this one will live inside me just a bit longer.
    Merry Christmas!
    Carney Ivy

  4. Harriet on December 23, 2020 at 06:25

    My four-year old great niece asked me yesterday why did they kill the baby Jesus? Wow! How does one explain the passion of our Lord to a child? Her heart is full of Santa Claus and presents, but also a sense of the sacred. May my explanation be wise and caring.

  5. Pamela Post- Ferrante on December 22, 2019 at 14:26

    Dear Brother Curtis,
    I have been berating myself for sinking into sadness for someone I care for who is very ill. I have thougt that if only I could always “ bear the light”, I would be more helpful when he falls into discouragement. It is so much easier to “ weep with those who weep”
    I can do both, I now remember.
    I love, “Receive the light of Christ; beam the light of Christ with great generosity.”

  6. Joan Hill on December 21, 2019 at 17:57

    Dear Br. Curtis,

    Thank you. Loved your talk of candles. Have for a long time found their light and simplicity moving. Easter vigil, seeing how far the light of one candle traveled. Do you know Guardini’s “Sacred Signs”? Think you would enjoy his meditation on candles. And thank you for “draw on your memory.” Will spend some time with that. Christmas blessings.

  7. Jeanne DeFazii on December 21, 2019 at 10:30

    This is a very important Christmas message which has deeply impacted my life. I am passing it on to others today.

    God bless you all at SSJE. Your devotionals have helped me through a very challenging year.

  8. Margo Fletcher on December 21, 2019 at 08:31

    Dear Br. Curtis,
    Thank you for having the courage to offer this sermon. If one follows the lectionary Christmas tide is not just a “holly jolly time of year”. It has always bothered me that we gush over Christmas while the death and mayhem that surround Jesus’ birth get ignored or at least side lined. The huge irony in this juxtaposition of events carries with it the message the cross over shadows the cradle and Christmas is always a coming event.
    It takes a monumental act of faith to believe my tiny light makes any difference. If we could together agree on some corporate acts against ‘greed and pollution’ – perhaps a great life sustaining flame would ensue. Margo .

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