Have you heard the news? That question often makes my heart sink, because it’s usually bad news! The year started with the violent attack on the US Capitol. Then all those cataclysmic climate events, racial attacks, mass shootings, a deeply broken and divided nation and world. And perhaps most disheartening of all, the devastating effects of the Covid virus. Such a diet of bad news, day after day, can profoundly affect the way that we see our own lives. We can look back over this year and see only the bad news: bad news for ourselves, our families, our lives.
And if certain newspapers, eager for a story, honed in on you, wanting to dig up some bad news about you, that you’d rather the public didn’t know, I wonder what they would find? They would likely find something sooner or later, because there is bad news about all of us, if you look hard enough: things we have done or said, which we maybe wished we hadn’t, and which we’d hate to be made known.
But today is Christmas. We are here to celebrate GOOD NEWS; wonderful, joyful good news. Not make believe, or wishful thinking. The good news is this: that ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ Yes, there is darkness – God knows there is darkness, darkness and all sorts of sinful, hurtful, shameful things in all of us and in our society. But the good news is that when God looks closely at you and at me, he is not like that newspaper looking for bad news. When God looks at us he looks at us with the eyes of love. Just as when you look at the person you love, you see how lovely they are: all that is beautiful and good about them. And when the person we love – our spouse, our children, our partner, our brother – when they are in trouble, or mess up, or fail an exam, or lose a job, or do something stupid or wrong, we don’t point the finger at them, or condemn them, or tell everyone about it. No, we love them even more, and we do everything in our power to help them – because we love them. And when things go wrong we love them all the more.
I don’t spend a lot of time reading for pleasure, but when I do, I usually gravitate towards mysteries. I love the way skilled mystery writers can weave together a complex plot involving a whole cast of characters, somehow leaving us hanging at the end of each chapter, eager for more. The situations the detectives find themselves in are always so complicated – there are numerous suspects with possible motives and pieces of evidence that don’t seem to fit, and we’re wondering how this tangled situation will ever be resolved. But, invariably, in the final pages the truth comes out, the villain makes a fatal mistake, a key piece of evidence comes to light, or the detective has a brilliant flash of insight, and the whole complex situation finds resolution. 95% of the book is spent weaving the complicated plot, and the last 5% is spent resolving and explaining the mystery.
Most of the time I find these kinds of stories satisfying. (I do like a tidy ending!) But at times the ending feels too neat and I think to myself, ‘that’s not how life works.’ Situations in life that are as tangled as this don’t resolve themselves quite this conveniently, most of the time.
It is curious that we begin a new season today, the First Sunday of the Advent season. Outside the walls of this monastery chapel, a new season began just after Halloween, called “Holiday Shopping Season,” along with the Amazon promise that you can have it all now… at least by tomorrow. The season of Advent interposes quite an opposite theme. Anticipating Christmas is not about immediacy. Rather, it is about watching, and waiting, and preparing to celebrate Christ’s infant birth at Bethlehem, and to prepare for Christ’s promise that he will come again in real time. In Advent, you will see no holiday glitter here in this chapel. What catches our eye’s attention is the Advent wreath, front and center, on which we slowly light candles. In the Hebrew scriptures, the promised Messiah teems with the language of light. The Messiah is called “the Dayspring,” “the Morning Star,” “the Sun of Righteousness,” “the Light of the World.”
And don’t we need light, especially as we approach the winter solstice? Meanwhile, there’s more and more darkness outside. The reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th probably has to do with light. The earliest Christians most likely wanted the date of Christmas to coincide with the festival of the Roman Empire on December 25th which marked “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.”[i] This festival celebrated the winter solstice, when the days again begin to lengthen and the sun rises higher in the sky: December 25th.[ii] And so light has historically figured very importantly into this Advent season preparing for the coming and coming again of Christ: light. Light in the sky and light in our souls.
Today is Candlemas and it’s a feast I’m very fond of – but then I like candles! I remember when I was a young child, we lived in the South of England, deep in the Sussex countryside, and we were often having power outages. It was so exciting to slowly walk upstairs to bed, carrying a candle, and then tuck up in bed, nice and cozy, looking round a once familiar bedroom – now mysteriously alive with flickering shadows.
Later as I came to faith, looking at a candle, holding a candle, staring at the flickering light of the candle helped me to pray. The flickering light spoke to me of the light of Christ: of warmth, comfort, and the mystery of God.
The candles that we light in this church – all over the church and on the high altar today – help us celebrate the event which took place 40 days after Christmas, when Jesus, the Light of the world, was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents to fulfill the required ceremonies of the law. He had already been circumcised on the eighth day and received his name, “Jesus.” But because he was the first-born, he was regarded as holy. In other words, belonging to the Lord, and his parents had to, as it were, buy him back by paying a shekel to the sanctuary, and he was then presented to the Lord. At the same time, his mother Mary had, according to the law, to be purified after childbirth. This was achieved by offering two burnt offerings either of turtle doves and two pigeons.
No one covers a lamp with a basket or puts it under a bed, says Jesus. Hiding a lamp makes it ineffective. A lamp is made to share light, to be out in the open so others may see. Matthew adds: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[i] We are made to shine, to illuminate, to point people to God, not hiding or keeping to ourselves.
Yesterday in the text preceding this we heard a parable.[ii] Like the wild sower, God is recklessly generous, scattering seed everywhere, including where there is little chance of bearing fruit. Like the different soils, we vary in our receptivity, while God keeps loving, generously sharing.
To receive such generosity and to share it means being vulnerable—risky, emotional, exposed—and this is how we are created to be. Fear and shame prompt hiding or hording. Jesus says as a lamp is for a room, we are to receive, be seen, and shine.
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.