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.
Revelation 3:1-6, 14-22
It’s remarkable that our first lesson, from the Revelation to John, includes one of the most tender passages in the whole of the scriptures. The Book of Revelation, which is so full of nightmarish-like scenes depicting the cosmic battle between good and evil, includes a momentary truce, where we hear these very inviting words attributed to Jesus:
“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking;
if you hear my voice and open the door,
I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”[i]
Where I first learned this passage from scripture was not with my ears but with my eyes: from the painting of William Holman Hunt entitled “The Light of the World.”[ii] You, too, may have been a child when you first saw a reproduction. The original 1850’s painting hangs in the chapel of Keble College at Oxford University. William Holman Hunt produced a later version in 1900, which toured the world and now has its home at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Since that world tour, a century ago, this painting has been reproduced innumerable times in Sunday School papers, in illustrative Bibles, and in devotional literature the world o’er. The painting has also been a source of inspiration for many poets on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson.[iii]
Shine Your Light: Be a peacemaker
As we are children of God, we all have different gifts and callings. I have been called to be a seminarian and currently I am studying at Virginia Theological Seminary. I am originally from a little country named Myanmar, where 90 percent of the population is Buddhist, and Burmese ethnic group is a majority. However, I am from a minor ethnic group called Karen and raised as an Anglican. I have been working as a youth coordinator at my home parish church. I always get excited to work with young people and share the Gospel with them. By the grace of God, I had a chance to visit a Burmese community (mostly Karen) when I moved to the United States. This Karen community consists of people who come to United States as refugees because of ethnic conflicts within the country. Although they are in another country, they want to go to church but they do not know where to go and. They also do not know that Episcopal and Anglican are the same. Sadly, because of some of the controversial issues within Anglican communion, they are confused, and they do not know which church they belong to. As a result, many young people do not go to church and their faith become weak. While they have to struggle their lives in America, they prioritize many things in everyday life. Loving and knowing God is not their priority. Most of them are too caught up in the secular world and they have no idea about making God a priority. The spirituality of the children is not well-nurtured. Therefore, God gives me a special mission to do while I am in America is to share my blessings with young people here. When I talked to young people, they said they wanted the churches to be united, so that they can go to church and learn more about God. They do not want to be lack confidence and stay in the darkness anymore. I hope that I can help them grow in spirituality, just as ‘Saint Irenaeus’ encouraged his people to be in unity and have faith in Christ.
As we celebrate and remember Saint Irenaeus today, he reminds us to see the light of God and overcome our darkness. His name ‘Irenaeus’ means ‘the peaceable one.’ Like his name, he mediated inner tension between the church of Rome and the churches in Asia minor, and worked for unity. Like Irenaeus times, there are many arguments over liturgy, scripture, worship style or music nowadays. Sometimes, it is sad to see division within the churches even though we all are family members of God. We are trying so hard to be Christians without centering our lives in Jesus and neglecting to love our neighbors as ourselves. The purpose of being Christians is to share your gifts and blessings given by God, to love and serve but not to hide them. “No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light.” (Luke 11:33). We need to show that we are the children of God and light of the world by being young at heart.
Although we cannot be young forever, we can have inner youthfulness. Being youthful means our hearts are full of passion, love, kindness and sincerity. If we only want to look younger but not to have a child-like heart, we are doing it in a wrong way. “You are the light of the world.” “Brighten the corner where you are.” These are the phrases I heard all the time when I was a child. The adults always say children are the future leaders who will light up the world and shine. However, when we grow up, we forget to remind ourselves that we are the light of the world. We are too busy prioritizing other things. Because of human ego, there are conflicts, jealousy and arguments all over the places. Human ego creates darkness where people can hide their light. We always need to bear in mind that Jesus is the light of the world. If we don’t prioritize Jesus as the savior, if we put him aside, we are in the darkness. Jesus is the only person who shows how to love. We called ourselves Christians, but we fail to act like one.
Today scripture says, “If your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be just as full of light as when a lamp shines its light on you.” (Luke 11: 36) And your light will be shine if you love Jesus and glorify him. Ask God to open our heart to see the light with healthy eyes and shine through mind, word and deed. Let ask God to make us peacemakers of this world. Amen.
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.
At Emery House, our retreat center in West Newbury, one of my favorite things to do is walking down the lane in the dark and looking up to see the stars, watching the amazing light breaking through so beautifully and naturally. I usually don’t get to see it. We have so much light in the city. So much artificial light may let us live, yet it limits what we see. Where it is most dark, light is most powerful.
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.
A couple of weeks ago I was walking in Harvard Square with my brother, John Oyama, and we were talking about the Christmas lights (or holiday lights!) that are 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 States and beyond this time of year.
“Isn’t that interesting” and “why do they do that?” we were saying to one another. If we were to ask the public works department, and shopkeepers, and you who are householders, “why do we adorn our life and livelihood with lights at this time of year?” we would undoubtedly hear a great variety of explanations, the lowest common denominator probably being, “It’s a tradition,” or “It’s our custom; this is what we’ve always done.” Which is true… mostly.