In this Gospel lesson appointed for today, there is a recurring word: light. In the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, we are reminded – seven times – that God is light, “the true light that enlightens everyone.” Light is a recurring theme during Christmastide, not just in the scriptures, but in life all around us. We see festive lights strung across the streets, on lamp poles, in shop windows, and on the gables of houses here in Cambridge and in so many places across the country. In your home you may have a lighted Christmas tree and festive candles on your table or in your windowsill. Here in our chapel, our crèche is lighted; the altar is specially lighted with towering candles. This array of lights we customarily see in Christmastide has a Christian history, but not a Christian origin.
The tradition of lights this season traces its way back to the Roman Empire, which marked the “birthday of the unconquered sun” (natalis solis invicti) on December 25th. Since early days, Christians have celebrated Christmas on December 25th, probably to coincide with the winter solstice,[i] when the days again begin to lengthen and the sun rises higher in the sky.”[ii] Isaiah had prophesied about the light of the forthcoming Messiah: “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light…[iii]And so, light has figured very importantly into the Christmas story. The shepherds found their way to the manger of the Christ child by following a light in the sky. The Magi from the east also found their way to the Christ child by following stars in the night sky. In later years, the Gospel writers would remember Jesus’ saying 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 can string the tradition of lights this time of year back to early centuries that predate Christ. Whether or not we consciously understand the history and symbolism of festal light, we do innately crave light. Whether we suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or whether we’re afraid of “things that go bump in the night,” 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 candles and strands of light we see this season – inside and outside the church – are reminders of how common and how deep this craving for real light actually is, a craving that reaches to the depths of our souls.
Here are some scenes of light, 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… And on the first day, God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And it was good. It was not until the fourth day, in the creation story, that the sun and moon and stars of the sky were created. Which is to say God’s light precedes our light. 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: choose to face God, who knows you and 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 shine on you.[v] 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.”[vi] Lighten up in the face of God.
- 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 yet alive, for as much as one more day, is to participate in the life and light and love of God. You are a living mirror. Bear the beams of love. Look upon others and be radiant with God’s love for them. They may otherwise never know in this life – or at least not know in this day – how much God loves them. And what shame to go through a day without being reminded how much God loves you. Mirror that light into the face of others, and with the extravagant generosity of God. You need not speak; simply be a mirror of God’s life, and light, and love upon the face of others.
- If the light of God seems occluded from you just now, this is what will hurt and this is what will help. What will hurt is anger, resentment, disdain, and envy. This will crimp the conduit of God’s light beaming into your soul, and without that light you will likely feel lost. Anger, resentment, disdain, and envy block the light and leave your soul opaque with nothing, certainly nothing good, to reflect. And that hurts deeply and needs to be purged from your soul: anger, resentment, disdain, and envy hurts.
What helps is thankfulness. Gratitude is like a router; it’s like angioplasty to the soul. If you are not deeply in touch with gratitude just now, then you don’t know what you’re missing… but you can find out very quickly. Simply be thankful, now: for your ability to breathe; for the color red; for music and harmony and ears to hear it; for the ability to walk; for light and heat; for a bed on which to sleep; for someone who has stood by you and not forgotten you. On and on you could go. It could be like praying without ceasing, to live that gratefully. It would hardly leave room for anything less than life simply being a gift to you. And it could also make a world of difference to others. “We are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love….”
There’s a lot of light deprivation in our world. You can get in touch with darkness by reading the newspaper, or surfing the web, or hearing news from Washington, from the drought in Africa, the fires in the Amazon rain forest, the tyranny of governments, the hundreds of thousands of children and families who have lost their homes and their hope. You can get in touch with darkness in facing the poverty on our own doorstep and around the world, and so much sickness and disease that seems unconquerable… Lots of bad news. Hear the news as a clarion call, as motivation and clarification for what we are to be about as followers of Jesus Christ: to bear the beams of God’s love and light and life, especially to those who wouldn’t otherwise know it. Your own life is a Christmas gift from God to the world. We hear Jesus say: “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.”[vii] If you were 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. Lucy Larcom, the great 19th century Massachusetts’ educator, said: “If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.”[viii]
If life is dark for you just now, here are two consolations. God is not in the dark. In the psalms, we read a prayer: “Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.”[ix] God is not in the dark. Presume that your soul mirrors the sky: there is both day and night. If you are in the dark, God is not in the dark and the light will dawn on you as you are able to bear it. We call this “enlightenment.” Meanwhile, if you are in the dark, take Jesus at his word that he is with us always, and to the very end.[x] The dawn will come, when you are ready, or when you are readied. You can’t force the light. There’s an ancient story about a spiritual seeker who asked the master, “Master, is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?” The master answered, “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.” “Then of what use are the spiritual practices you prescribe?” “To make sure,” the elder said, “that you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.” The dawn will come, when you are ready, or when you are readied. Watch and wait with great expectation.
You may also find consolation in darkness. Saint John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, writes about experiencing “the dark night of the senses,” when good feelings and consolation fall away. John of the Cross says that “the clearer the light the more it blinds and darkens the eye of the soul,” not unlike looking directly on the sun.[xi] You are teeming with God’s light, whether or not you can see it. Don’t deify your ability to see God. God sees you, and God is with you. If you are in the dark, rest in the knowledge that God is not in the dark, and that God is with you. The Prophet Isaiah says, “Your light shall break forth like the dawn.”[xii]
If this Christmas you are asking the question, maybe desperately, whether God is with you, the answer is “yes, absolutely.” 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 to loom large, God is with you. Take the risk of being as adventurous and as courageous as the Blessed Virgin Mary, Blessed Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, the shepherds, the wisemen to believe it be so that God is with you in both the night and the day. Bear the beams of God’s light and life and love with extravagance, wherever you can. There’s more where it all came from: God’s light, to lighten the way and give you delight… which is very good news, indeed.
[i] The ad 336 Roman almanac notes the December 25th celebration of Christmas.
[ii] Hebrews 1:3.
[iii] Isaiah 60:19.
[iv] John 8:12.
[v] Psalm 4:6; 44:3.
[vi] Ephesians 3:14-21.
[vii] Matthew 5:14-16.
[viii] Lucy Larcom (1824-1893) was a prolific author and poet, and taught at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.
[ix] Psalm 139:12.
[x] Matthew 28:20.
[xi] John of the Cross, OCarm (1542-1591) in The Dark Night of the Soul, 2:5.
[xii] Isaiah 58:8.
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