Here is the Lamb of God. I myself did not know him; but I came that he might be revealed.
As a child (and like many children) I lived with a terrible fear of the dark. Dusk brought with it great anxiety, for I knew what was coming, as it always had: the deep, dark, infinite night. If I am completely honest, this is a fear I have never really outgrown. When one summer between sophomore and junior years of high school I found myself drowning in preparatory reading assignments, the night brought new shades of anxiety. I recall spending most of that summer just as unable to face my bed as I had been as a child. Certainly, I became another “Glenn night owl,” but not because I enjoyed the night.
As an adult, I find the early anxieties brought on at dusk have only grown with me, changing shape, size, and magnitude as my experience with the world and myself became fuller, richer, and, at times, much darker.
It is now the darkest part of the year—at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. It is also a particularly dark season in the world. Yet this is not the only dark season I—or any of us—have known, and scripture invites us to name and own the enduring mystery at the heart of our human experiences of darkness.
Growing up, I shared a bedroom with my older brothers, Charlie and Chris. This wasn’t a problem, except when it was. On one occasion, they and their friends decided to play parachute, jumping from the top bunk, where Chris slept, down onto my bed. By the time my mother got home and discovered what we had been up to, my bed was a wreck, and my mother was furious. Needless to say, a new mattress and bedspring had to be purchased in order to make my bed usable again.
More problematic, at least for me, was the closet. As the youngest of the three boys, I went to bed earlier than Charlie and Chris. By the time they came to bed an hour or so later then I, it was usually much darker, and the darkest place of all was the closet directly opposite the foot of my bed. Now, I wasn’t afraid of the dark … well, not much at least. What I was certainly afraid of was the darkness of the closet. It seemed like a great gaping black hole, and I was terrified of it. I thought that I could get lost in that darkness forever. I would only be able to fall asleep again if the closet door was closed. And that was the problem. Either on purpose or accidentally Charlie and Chris would frequently leave the door open and I would have to timidly ask them to close it. By then they too were in bed with the lights out, and they would sometimes refuse to get up and do my bidding, so in fear and trepidation I would either whimper until they did so, or steel up my courage and do it myself, scurrying back to bed as quickly as I could, once the dreaded task was completed.
That was a long time ago, and by now, most of us are too old, or too sophisticated to be afraid of the dark. We no longer need big brothers to protect us from whatever is lurking in the back of the dark closet. We no longer dread falling asleep with the closet door open, with that great gaping darkness threatening to swallow us whole. We’re no longer afraid of the dark … well, not much at least.
Going to camp often means away up a mountain, or in my experience, out to a desert island. One gift of camp is the night, though it may be scary. With no neighbors and limited electricity, new guests, especially youth, swing flashlights the first nights, anxious at seeing much less. They point to the path and all around trying, it seems, to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We are similarly afraid these days in the deepening darkness of our world. With questions increasing, anxiety swirling, violence striking, fear infecting, prejudice multiplying, and sadness swelling, we want to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We just sang: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” We ask for the light of God’s face turning toward us. Small yet significant. When another’s face lights up at seeing ours, we are loved.
In the days of our Gospel story, Mary set out and went quickly to visit Elizabeth. A normal visit turned extraordinary. By divine power and blessing, now both Mary, a young virgin, and Elizabeth, a barren elder, are pregnant. Dark days since they also bear the burden of public shame. The scandal since Mary claims pregnancy through the dream of an angel. Who did she think she was? The long years of ridicule for Elizabeth who had never born a child. Rumors swirled about why she was now.
Advent Preaching Series: “O Radiant Light: Come and Enlighten Us.”
This evening is the second in a three-part Advent sermon series on the “O Antiphons,” which have been prayed in Christian monasteries since about the 6thcentury. An antiphon is a short focusing sentence that precedes and follows the singing of a psalm or canticle. The seven “O Antiphons” are sung at Evensong before and after the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, between December 17th and December 23rd, in anticipation of Christmas. Each of the “O Antiphons” uses a title for the Messiah found in the prophecy of Isaiah.[i] These antiphons begin with “O,” in the sense of when something dawns on you, and you say with exclamation, “Oh!” This evening our theme is “O Radiant Light: Come and enlighten us.”
Light figures very importantly in this season. Look around. Candlelights appear here on the Advent wreath. Outside we find strings of light thread across streets, in shop windows, on housetop gables, on fireplace mantles, and on Christmas trees. These festive lights this season of the year actually have a Christian history, but not a Christian origin. Let’s take a step backward in history before we move forward.
Out of their gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see.
When I was about twenty-four year old, I encountered the film adaptation José Saramago’s novel, Blindness, and Advent returns my mind to Saramago’s gripping allegory. Blindness chronicles the harrowing story of a handful of characters who, along with citizens of their unidentified city, become stricken with an inexplicable, contagious blindness. As the condition spreads, an epidemic is declared and those afflicted by “the white sickness” are quarantined in a filthy, overcrowded asylum. When the protagonist’s husband, an ophthalmologist, contracts the condition, she joins him in captivity by lying to the authorities about her health: she can still see. Within the asylum, conditions deteriorate quickly. When food becomes scarce, an armed ward of the asylum seizes what rations remain and terrorizes the other wards with unspeakable cruelty. “The doctor’s wife” eventually frees the small band, only to discover the whole world stricken.
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 71:1-14; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 12:20-36
When praying with our scriptures appointed for this evening, one word kept grabbing my attention and has stayed with me now for several days. It is something that I have spent a lifetime trying to evade but continues to show up and rear its head at me no matter how much I try to control it, manipulate it, and cover it up. I have a personal and intimate knowledge of it, yet I know it to be a pervasive reality in all of humanity and I suspect that every one of us here has an intimate knowledge of this word. The word is: shame.
Wikipedia defines shame as: a painful, social emotion that can be seen as resulting “…from comparison of the self’s action with the self’s standards…,” but which may equally stem from comparison of the self’s state of being with the ideal social context’s standard. Both the comparison and standards are enabled by socialization. Though usually considered an emotion, shame may also variously be considered an affect, cognition, state, or condition.[i]
From the beginning of the canon of scripture, it only takes three chapters for shame to appear in the human condition. The last sentence of Genesis chapter two reads: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” In the course of chapter three we read that Adam and Eve act on their temptation to do the one thing their creator has told them they must not do, eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their eyes are opened and they hide themselves. When God moves through the garden and cannot find them he calls out to them, “Where are you?” The man answers, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” And from that moment, shame enters the human condition and continues to show up continually throughout our existence.
I remember, or maybe I was told, how one day Little Nick clung to his mother’s leg for dear life. It was the first day of kindergarten, and I suppose I was wondering something like “What kind of madness is this? Am I supposed to leave the warmth and safety of Mom for a strange and scary world?” I don’t want to go.
Later, waking up one morning, and feeling a new love pressed close under the cozy blankets, I begin to think of certain responsibilities. “Do I really need to go to work today? Can’t I just stay here in bed, wonderfully entangled with my beloved under the covers. The world seems so cold and cruel by comparison.” I don’t want to go.
There is a reason why we celebrate Christmas at the end of December, when the weather has turned cold, the days are short and the nights are long and dark. There is a reason we celebrate Christmas at the darkest, coldest time of the year. There is a reason why we come out into the dark, cold night and make our way to churches and chapels, cathedrals and monasteries all over the world, on this night of all nights.
Our ancestors in the faith knew why, because they knew something about night and about darkness. They who lived in a world lit only by fire, knew that the world, at least at this time of the year, was indeed a dark, cold place. They knew something about the dark. They knew, as we probably don’t, how easy it is to get lost in the dark. They knew, as we probably don’t, that there are indeed things to be afraid of in the dark. They knew, as we probably don’t, that danger lurked in the darkness of the night.
On this Holy Innocents Day, my mind goes back to Salisbury Cathedral where I was ordained. The cathedral is twinned with Chartres Cathedral, and the year after my ordination a huge new East window was put into Salisbury – an incredibly beautiful and powerful window, made in Chartres at the famous workshop of Gabriel Loire – and incorporating that marvelous blue so characteristic of Chartres. The window is called “Prisoners of conscience” and it was dedicated by Yehudi Menuhin, who had worked so tirelessly for Amnesty International.
There’s a rich, very dense, chewy cake called pan forte that is an Italian specialty, especially in Tuscany. The version from Siena requires 17 different ingredients, one for each of the 17 contrade, or sections of the city. Honey, sugar, spices, fruits, nuts, flour. The pleasure is in the sheer complexity of this very dense confection, usually served with coffee for dessert, or even for breakfast. Pan forte.
Today we have the pan forte, the “strong bread”, of Gospel stories: the wedding feast at Cana. We have Jesus, the mother of Jesus, the disciples, the wedding guests, the servants, the steward of the feast, the happy couple, the parents and family of the newlyweds. It’s the beginning of a life together; and, indeed, new life could be conceived in the womb of a young mother this very night. And we have water, wine, water turned into wine, plenty of food, music and dancing, surely. It’s the “third day”. There’s the hint of some difficult mother/son dynamics. His hour has not yet come. “It most certainly has,” she might have said. “Do what he tells you.” The glory of Jesus is revealed; the disciples believe. It’s his first “sign”, as John puts it. Do have a look at the wonderful Coptic icon here with Jesus in the claret-red garment and his very pleased mother beside him.