The Beauty of Holiness
The Holiness of Beauty
Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
Beauty is not a veneer. Beauty is not entertainment, nor a lovely distraction, nor the domain of the privileged. Beauty is essential for life. Beauty is of the essence of God. The psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps 29:2, 96:9). The worship life of the church is infused and informed by beauty mediated through all of our senses: what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. “Taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps 34:8). In the Genesis creation account, God creates, and then God observes that it is all very good. In the fullness of time, when God takes on human form in Jesus, we experience the reclaiming of the original blessing in creation. It is good, very good.
Beauty is infinitely evocative. Beauty belongs to an ancient triad called the “transcendentals,” gateways through which all of creation both reveals and knows God. The transcendentals are beauty, truth, and goodness. Goodness relates to the will; truth, to the mind; beauty, to the heart, feelings, and imagination. The transcendentals are attributes of God and, therefore, of God’s creation. Beauty, truth, and goodness infuse one another, and each is a portal to God. We have been created in the image of God. Thereby, what is most important is not what we may say about God, but what God’s creation says about God. We have been created “to participate in the being that flows from God, and to manifest God’s beauty in the depths of our nature” (David Bentley Hart, “The Mirror of the Infinite,” in Re-thinking Gregory of Nyssa, 112).
Beauty speaks to and through our senses and transfigures our mind, because beauty is magnificently ordered. Beauty teems with harmony, rhythm, the splendor of shape and form, evocative meaning, sometimes eliciting our enchantment and wonder, always connecting us with something More, its Creator. Beauty rightly liberates us from the narrow confines of our rational minds. The great Swiss priest and scholar, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), spoke of the “theological aesthetic”: to perceive through holy people and holy images the objective glory of divinely revealed truth. Creation matters.
In our experience of beauty, we are enveloped in the signs of God’s magnificent presence among us, God’s immanence. Simultaneously, we are pointed onward to the attraction of God’s glory, God’s transcendence: God, from whom and in whom all has been created. Beauty envelopes us with its Source. Panentheism describes this. Not pantheism: everything is God. But rather, panentheism: everything is in God. All of creation is iconic: a window through which to know, reverence, and worship God. Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, recalls the elder monk, Zosima, telling the youngest Karamazov son, Alyosha, that creation is “an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part … the world a mirror of infinite beauty … beautiful as in the beginning of days.”
Beauty attracts, sometimes very powerfully. We can be smitten by what we find beautiful. However if we worship what we find beautiful – that is, if we give ultimate worth to what we find beautiful – we will be disappointed, and we may get lost. Beauty, to be experienced most wholly and freely, needs to be experienced in the context of its Source. What we find beautiful is participating in the glory of the Creator. We, as creatures, have been given the inspiration to be makers or re-makers of beauty (John Saward, The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, 48). Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), the Spanish friar and priest, writes of this longing for the beautiful, whose beginning and end is in God. In life, what we are first attracted to are God’s creatures, and they say, “‘What you are looking for is not here, but God has passed by, scattering beauty as he went.’ What attracts us in creatures is something of God’s beauty. The creatures are honest: they tell us plainly that they are not enough to fill that hole in our hearts” (Cantico Espiritual, can. 4 & 5). What we find beautiful is always a participant, a creature, not the Creator.
Beauty can be a very powerful channel for healing. When life has been ravaged by pain or loss, by disorder or distress, by chaos or fear, the experience of beauty can be a very balming, calming, re-ordering channel for re-righting our soul. On occasion I will be invited to listen to someone speak about the distress and debris of life that is infecting their soul. Their experience of life is death-dealing, and they are disconsolate. For these dear, suffering souls I am not inclined to suggest a tough spiritual exercise. I more often send them to a museum, to a flower shop, to a concert, to a delicious meal, to a wildlife park, to a pool of water, to a playground to watch children, to a forest or mountain. It’s to reacquaint them with what they’ve forgotten, what may have been lost or stolen from them: that amidst life’s sometimes appalling suffering, chaos, and death, life teems with beauty. Beauty is so weighty; the experience of beauty will very powerfully rebalance the fulcrum of our life. The great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), said: “A person should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What do you find beautiful? Beauty is worth attending to; you are worth attending to beauty.
The Anglican theological tradition is sacramental, that is, we recognize outward signs in creation as channels of God’s inner work of grace. How splendid it is to order our prayer and worship with a generous splay of beauty. Very gracious. The psalmist sings to us: “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps 96:9). Beauty is not functional; beauty is redolent and transformative. Beauty is worthy of our attention as we order both our corporate and personal prayer. Beauty may be a very large instrument in our lifelong conversion to Christ. As we read in the Letter to the Colossians, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible … have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17). Beauty is of the essence of God, in whose image we have been created. Pray your life beholding the beauty of God that surrounds you and fills you.
Br. Curtis Almquist
All suffering is God’s punishment for sin. This was an underlying belief in Jesus’ own day. Suffering is a divine payback for wrongdoing. Jesus confronts this notion. When he encounters a man blind from birth, Jesus is asked rather rhetorically, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”[i]
So why is there suffering? How many there are, the sources of suffering. Some suffering we clearly do bring onto ourselves because of how we are practicing our life with too much of this or too little of that, of deceptions and bad decisions, sometimes which turn into a tsunami of suffering. Yet when Jesus is asked the source of this man’s blindness, Jesus is not formulaic. He clearly says that suffering ipso facto is not a sign of God’s judgment or rejection. Jesus teaches that God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous; God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good.” Jesus says, all of us are “children of [one] Father in heaven.”[ii] God’s love is indiscriminate.
So what do we make of suffering? We clearly cannot avoid it. Study history; read the newspapers; recall your own life. Clearly, there is no escape from suffering until life is ended. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, suffering has a prominent and paradoxical place in our lives. Our theology hangs on the cross. Jesus tells us that if we want to be his followers we must “take up our cross” and follow him.[iii] We will be presented with the cross. It will happen, and probably more than once in our lifetimes. We either face our cross, or we flee from it, but this is Jesus’ way for us: the way of the cross. The cross is an instrument of suffering before it becomes the way to life.
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Life is full of mystery. Especially people. We are all such mysteries. Yet there are these moments when we learn something about another person, and it’s like the light turns on in our heart of understanding who they are and why. It may be in our learning about their family of origin, their life history, their health, their abilities and training, their failures or successes. Whatever. And we have this “ah-ha” moment. It’s like a missing piece has been found in the puzzle of understanding this person… and their life now makes much more sense to us. Perhaps even what before had seemed to us a stain on this person’s character, we now can see is a scar which they have worn and wear well. We realize they are something of a walking miracle. You probably have had this experience. I certainly have.
The word in the scriptures that captures this deep sense of understanding another person is mercy, often also translated as compassion. The Hebrew word for compassion comes from the same root as the word for womb. Compassion is womb-like, for both the giver and the receiver.[i] Compassion safely, gently nurtures life. Estelle Frankel, a rabbi and psychotherapist, says that, “With compassion we enable all things to grow into their most beautiful and complete form, and with compassion we learn the wisdom of the womb,” how to hold, when to hold back as we carry someone in our womb of awareness.[ii]
Jesus is tempted by the evil one to do something, to become somebody that was possible, but that was wrong. And he knew it was wrong, a wrong contorting of his power. Where we are most vulnerable to temptation is not just where we are weak, and know it, but rather where we are strong, and can use our power to the wrong end.
Jesus, and, later, Saint Paul, were convinced there are forces of both good and evil at work in this world. The evil forces are very seductive. Why else are we prone to do or say what we know full well to be wrong? Why do we cave in? And so Saint Paul speaks of our need for spiritual armor… which may sound a little corny in this day and age. But this is a “heads up” about our need for just that: spiritual armor, of needed protection for our soul.[i]
You probably do have up-to-date anti-virus software on your computer. You probably do take your doctor’s recommendation for immunizations against polio, tetanus, hepatitis, pneumonia, and influenza. You probably do wash your hands throughout the day as a kind of precaution against invasive germs and viruses. You probably accept our country’s need for military defense to guard us against an enemy attack. All of these are protections to ward against adversarial powers. But the thought of “spiritual armor” may not garner much of your attention. It should. We need what Saint Paul calls the “armor of God”: protection from head to heart to toe because we all are vulnerable to temptation and attack from the enemy of our soul.[ii]
I’ll draw on the insight of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth century founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. In his earlier life, Ignatius was an armor-bearing knight and soldier.[iii] Ignatius says that the enemy of our soul is like a calculating general sizing up the opponent.
- Your vulnerability to temptation may have to do with your risk of losing your center or your sobriety. What is it that makes you vulnerable? It may have to do with your proclivity to over-work, or to under-rest, to obsess or to pretend, and so your fuse is short or your rationalization is great. In an unguarded moment you may quietly say to yourself, “I deserve this,” “I can get away with this,” something, which if you were more sound and centered would be a dangerous temptation, as you would well know.
- If you are prone to harbor resentment, you are very vulnerable. Resentment is residual anger, a dis-ease, and it will metastasize in your soul. Resentment will lower your resistance to oppressive forces, and it will infect you. Resentment will compromise you and make you vulnerable to become the person you resent.
- If you are prone to lose your gratitude for being alive, you are spiritually vulnerable. God is the source, sustenance, and destiny for our lives. If you are prone to lose that perspective on the amazing gift of life, of so much that is mysteriously wonderful, beautiful, sustaining, strengthening that comes to us from God… if you are prone to lose sight of this, then you are vulnerable to the idolatry of being your own god. And that god will prove too small for you. You will be tempted to compensate. You will be powerless in your hour of need and sorely tempted to hide or to die away.
- If you are inappropriately critical of other people, you are vulnerable. I say inappropriately critical of other people, because we absolutely need critical faculties to navigate our relationships. Being inappropriately critical is to see other people as better than you or as worse than you, and therefore you are either inferior or superior to them. That’s inviting trouble, because you lose your dignity in that kind of judgment, and, in your eyes, so does this other person. We are not better or worse than each other. We are simply different from one another, and God loves differences. Look at the diversity of creation! The temptation to be derisively critical is a temptation far afield from the splendor of God’s love, and that temptation is a very slippery slope.
- If you are prone to keep secrets, you are spiritually vulnerable. I’m not talking here about your valuing privacy, nor about your keeping confidences, both of which are very important. I’m talking about living your life looking over your shoulder or keeping your head down, hoping that something is not discovered or traceable, wanting something going on within you can be kept in the dark, when it desperately needs the light. Those kinds of cheating secrets are a kiss of death, and they will put your soul at risk because that darkness will grow without light.
- How are you vulnerable, from the inside out? How are you vulnerable?
In our lifetimes, we do not lose our spiritual vulnerability. We would not want to lose it. How we come to know God, how God breaks through to us, is oftentimes through something that is broken in our lives. That break becomes God’s breakthrough, again and again. But our being vulnerable for the good also puts us at risk for being vulnerable to the bad. I’ll use a medical analogy. A patient in a hospital anticipating surgery is looking for a good outcome. The surgeon will take every precaution that something bad, something potentially infectious or invasive, does not infiltrate what is opened up for the good. And so must you. We are spiritually vulnerable, for good and ill. Ignatius of Loyola says that there is a kind of spiritual warfare going on around us and within us. We are being fought over, and we need to be protected.
Ignatius says that in every soldier’s set of armor there are chinks, little breaks in the armor’s lattice that make the soldier particularly vulnerable in those areas. Ignatius says these particular breaks don’t go away in life. Where and how you are vulnerable will likely remain for the rest of your life. Ignatius simply says, remember, you’re vulnerable. Don’t let down your guard, especially where you know yourself to be vulnerable.
We need spiritual armor. We personally need the 21st century equivalent of the 1st century “armor of God” described in the Letter to the Ephesians so that we can stand firm.[iv] Saint Paul gives a spiritual overlay to the first-century armor of a Roman soldier: a belt of truth buckled around your waist; a breastplate of righteousness to give you courage and protection to face what is wrong and must be righted; your feet fitted so you are ready to spring not to war but to peace; a shield to extinguish the flaming arrows, the strategic attacks of the evil one; a helmet of salvation to guard your mind from what is untrue or fake. That’s first century Roman armor, allegorized.
What armor do you need, now? Let’s pause for a moment. Just ponder this. Where do you need “armor” – protection – in areas where you are very strong and gifted. Where do you need “armor” – protection – in areas where you are quite weak and fearful? We’re most vulnerable in areas where we are very strong and where we are very weak. If you had custom-designed armor – let’s say 3 pieces of armor – where do you need protection from the assault of the evil one, the enemy of our soul? What armor do you need?
There is more going on in this world than meets the eye: the spiritual equivalent to germ warfare. The presence and power of God is operating: God’s light and life and love. God’s invitation for us is to co-operate with how God operates: to claim our need for protection and God’s invincible and available power. And God’s power and protection we’re assured of. Claim it. Claim what you need. Saint Paul writes, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[v] Heads up. Claim the protection you need, the armor God has for you. Take it up… and having done, do not be afraid.[vi]
[i] In Ephesians 6:12-13, Saint Paul writes that “our struggle [in this world] is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places…”
[ii] Ephesians 6:10-18.
[iii] Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556).
[iv] Ephesians 6:14-17.
[v] Romans 8:37-39.
[vi] Ephesians 6:13.
It is safe to say that Jesus did not agree with everyone. Jesus did speak endlessly about love, about loving living, about love being of our essence because God is love. And so we love. Love is the reason for our being. Love for those for whom we feel tenderly, feel a sense of belonging, feel compassion towards. We love them, and that love flows as freely as water flowing in a stream. But Jesus also calls us to love our enemies. Calling someone an enemy is oftentimes not politically correct to say, then and now. More often there are people whom we may find repelling, disgusting, stupid, clueless, getting in the way of the life and values we so cherish. These “enemies” are people whom we may judge are not helpful to our program and not aligned with our values.
The scholarly journal, the “International Bulletin of Mission Research,” has for more than thirty years compiled an annual table of Christian martyrs. The journal defines martyrs as “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.”
Martyr. The journal’s estimate: in the last 10 years, 900,000 Christians have been killed worldwide for their witness to Christ. That’s, on average, 90,000 Christians martyred each year during this past decade.[i]
The English word “martyr” comes from both Latin and Greek, the word “martyr” translated as “witness.” May we be spared shedding our blood as a martyr; nonetheless, there will be countless occasions to give “witness” to Christ. There will be more than a few opportunities for us to “lay down our life” for someone, another child of God, probably even today. The invitation may not be in an act of heroism – no shedding of blood – but more likely in a very mundane and rather hidden way.
Certain people who – as we say – absolutely “kill us,” we will have the occasion to show kindness or to forgive. We will be invited, undoubtedly, to offer the generosity of our tried patience; the withholding of our judgment; the readiness to be helpful and not hurtful, or retiring or rebuffing; the opportunity to bless and not to curse. Not everyone, we pray, will face John the Baptist’s fate; but all of us who profess Jesus as our Lord and Savior will be invited to die more than once, maybe more than once even today. To die. Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will not bear fruit.”[ii] We’re to be fruitful. Something will need to die for us to be fruitful. Whether it be something great or something puny that we are sorely tempted to clutch at and save at all costs may need to die. It may be some image of ourselves, some impression, or decision, or resolution, or privilege, or fear, or time that we feel is our rightful possession. It’s going to get in the way of life, what Jesus calls “abundant life,” if we don’t let it go, don’t surrender it, don’t let it die.[iii] Today will probably be a “killer” in the working out of our salvation and in our claiming the “abundant life” promised by Jesus.
In the SSJE Brothers’ Rule of Life, we speak of our identification with martyrdom, not because we are monks, but because we are baptized. In our baptismal vows, we profess that we “have died with Christ and are raised with him.” Jesus promises us resurrection power. We have to die before we rise, before we can claim his resurrection power. Die, again, and again, and again, we must die.
[i] See the International Bulletin of Mission Research, 2018 study: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2396939317739833
[ii] John 12:24.
[iii] Jesus speaks of “abundant life” in John 10:10.
Thomas Aquinas, OP (1225-1274)
Wisdom of Solomon 7:7-14
Thomas Aquinas, whom we remember today, personified what Jesus called the “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven.” Aquinas was born in 1225 and died at just under 50 years old: a Dominican scholar, theologian, philosopher, and prolific author. He had a photographic memory and mind.[i] He would sit surrounded by four scribes and he would dictate one sentence to one scribe, the next sentence to the second scribe, and so forth. He spoke four times as fast as they could write. By the time he finished the fourth sentence, he would dictate the fifth sentence to the first scribe… and on he went. In 25 years, he wrote 50 folio volumes, about 50,000 pages, the equivalent of 500 short modern books with the help of his scribes. All of this was done with quill pens.
Thomas Aquinas looked back on Moses’ encounter with God as profoundly significant. In the Book of Exodus, we read of God’s sending Moses as an emissary to the Pharaoh. Moses asks God, “Whom shall I say is sending me?” God reveals to Moses God’s own identity: “I Am Who I Am.”[ii] Aquinas said, in that disclosure, we discover the reason for created life: God is Being, the Ultimate Reality from which everything else in creation exists. Aquinas said God’s essence is to exist; we and all other creation derive our existence from God. And so the whole of creation tells God’s story. Creation reflects God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s order, God’s meaning.
For Aquinas, God’s revelation through creation was not just in the past, nor is it just in the present. God is always more. God’s revelation is ongoing and continues into the future. We must keep our minds open to God’s ongoing revelation. There is always more. And because of this, Aquinas did not see any inconsistency or disharmony between reason and revelation. God will continue to enlighten our minds if we will only be attentive.[iii] God’s revelation, Aquinas said, “is not the denial of [reason], but the perfection of reason.” Pay attention. God always has more to reveal to us, and this will be in harmony with what God has already revealed. Pay attention to life. The greatness and the glory and the wonder of God’s essence is beyond description, because God is always more: more than we can describe, understand, and experience. God is always more.
Thomas Aquinas’ scholarly pursuits had begun at age five when he had asked a teacher, “What is God?” His teacher had no answer, and Aquinas spent the rest of his life attempting to discover the answer… “What is God?” Who could have guessed where God’s revelation would lead Thomas Aquinas in the end? A few months before he died, he had a revelation, a mystical experience of Jesus, a foretaste of heaven, and it so radically transcended the words of Aquinas’ trade. Aquinas knew he was to end his scholarly work. He stopped writing words.
Peter Kreeft, the Boston College Aquinas scholar, uses the analogy of a Zen Buddhist wisdom about words: “A finger is useful for pointing to the moon, but whoa to the fool who mistakes the finger for the moon.” Aquinas had met his maker. Aquinas stopped his intellectual work, stopped his trading on words, and gave himself over to the attraction of God’s glory. [iv] His life’s work, his Summa Theologica, would be left unfinished, which was an unanticipated but fitting conclusion to someone so committed to God’s revelation being ongoing. There would always be more, more than Aquinas could summarize. Aquinas said of himself in his latter days, “compared to what I have now seen, everything I have written looks to me like straw.” What had he seen? God. He experienced God.
You are no Thomas Aquinas. But you need not be. You are you. One of a kind. What is God’s revelation to you that is uncontestable and perhaps unexplainable? What have you come to know to be true in life: the life that fills you and the life that surrounds you? Taking inspiration from Thomas Aquinas, consider what God has revealed to you in life. Don’t deny your mind; don’t disparage your studies; don’t denigrate your rationality but claim it all at a deeper level. Don’t deify your mind. What have you come to know at the deepest level to be absolutely true about life and love, and the source of it all?
In the end Thomas Aquinas claimed his identity not as a scholar but as a child of God. At the end of his life, Aquinas said that “the soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays His head against us.” Do you know the delight of a child tossing a ball into the air, Aquinas asks? That delight is what God experiences whenever God looks at you, Aquinas said. Thomas Aquinas’ revered intellect was, in the end, melded by love, loving knowledge.[v]
In the early centuries of Christian monasticism, this was called “putting your head into your heart.” Put your head into your heart and abide there. Reflect on what you know for sure, child of God that you are. What has God revealed to you about life and love – your life and the life that surrounds you – which may be inexplicable, but uncontestable? That is your life’s wisdom that is greater than gold.[vi]
Blessed Thomas Aquinas, whom we remember with thanksgiving.
- [i] Biographical detail by Peter Kreeft, A Summa of the Summa: Essential Passages of Aquinas (1990).
- [ii] Exodus 3:14.
- [iii] See Ephesians 1:15-23.
- [iv] From the SSJE Rule of Life: “The Call of the Society” (Chapter One). Referring to Jesus’ statement: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23)
- [v] Inspiration from The Inner Eye of Love; Mysticism and Religion, by William Johnston (1978), p. 20.
- [vi] Proverbs 3:14-24, 8:11, 16:16.
Two of Jesus’ inner ring of followers had so much in common: Peter and Judas. We know nothing about their upbringings and backgrounds. How were they raised? What did they value? What were their ambitions? Why were they attracted to follow Jesus? And why, among the multitude of his followers, did Jesus choose the two of them to be in his closest circle? Jesus was a shrewd and intuitive judge of character. What did Jesus see as so special in Peter and Judas? Were they charismatic? Were they eloquent? Were they passionate or articulate or extremely bright? Were they, like Jesus, riled by hypocrisy and injustice? Did they have a whimsical sense of humor, a hearty appetite, nerves of steel, the wisdom of a serpent, the innocence of a dove, a love for children, a certain way with the erudite or with the poor? They must have been impressive, both of them. Was Peter called “the rock” because he was stubborn or because he was strong? Maybe both. And Jesus made Judas the treasurer. Was that because Judas was so responsible, so accountable that he was entrusted with so much among those who had given up everything to follow Jesus? We don’t know. Surely Judas was a very special person, especially wonderful, to have a place so near to Jesus’ own heart. Surely Judas’ kiss of betrayal was not the first time he had expressed his closeness to Jesus.
So what happened? However similar or different they are to one another, both Peter and Judas end up in the Garden of Gethsemane, and both of them, surely to their own horror and to others’, they became betrayers. What, ultimately, is the difference between Judas, remembered for his deception, and his friend Peter, remembered for his sainthood? They had so much in common… except for one thing. Following Jesus’ crucifixion Judas was precipitous; Peter was not. Judas takes his own life; Peter is given his life back by Jesus’ in the gift of forgiveness.
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]
In this Gospel passage and elsewhere, Jesus speaks about our resurrection from the dead as a promise. Jesus speaks like a Pharisee. Pharisees in Jesus’ day believed in bodily resurrection in the “age to come.” That’s about hope for the future, what the church calls “the hope of heaven.” I’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, there’s something unique about Jesus’ teaching about the resurrection. Our resurrection is not just a future event; resurrection is for now. Resurrection informs or reforms how we live today. Saint Paul called it “resurrection power,” in the here and now.[i] Resurrection power. Resurrection is about hope for the future and about power for the present.
In the last 50 years or so, three novelists have captured the imagination of the English-speaking world, and beyond: C. S. Lewis in his Narnia Chronicles, J. R. R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter novels. All these stories have one theme in common. Power. The exercise of power, the need for power, the source of power. Why the “power” theme has so captured the attention of young and old alike is not because people are powerless. It’s not because these tales give us an imaginary respite from being overwhelmed by the powers that be. It’s much more the opposite of that. Power is of our essence, though many people do not recognize or accept this: their own power. We have been given power.