29 December 2019

Light and Life

Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656), Adoration of the Shepherds

John 1:1-5, 10-14

First Sunday of Christmas

The lectionary reading for this first Sunday of Christmas or Christmastide is Jesus’ flight into Egypt in Matthew 2, followed by Herod’s fury that the magi tricked him, which resulted in the killing of every boy under two years of age, remembered as the “holy innocents” (Mt. 2:12-23). In Western churches, the Feast of the Holy Innocents is on the fourth day of Christmas, December 28, and, today, December 29 in Orthodox Churches. It’s a disturbing text, reminding us that the birth of Jesus generates an enormous amount of resistance. It reminds of the cost involved in sending the Son into the world. The coming of the light increases darkness. It reminds us that sometimes we don’t want to be servants of the light or bear witness to the light or even encounter the light. We prefer darkness. And this is a dark story.

And that’s the primary reason why I decided not to preach on the Matthew text today. I’ve never preached on this text. I thought about taking it on this year, but something in me was pushing against this idea. Yes, it’s a story that needs to be told. There was a very moving op-ed piece in The New York Times on Friday by Esau McCaulley, an Anglican priest. There’s something about this story that speaks to where we are these days as a nation. It’s a reminder McCaulley writes, “that we live in a world in which political leaders are willing to sacrifice the lives of innocent on the altar of power,…it’s a world with families on the run, where the weeping of mothers is often not enough to win mercy for their children,…the story of the innocents calls upon us to consider the moral cost of the perpetual battle for power in which the poor tend to have the highest casualty rate.”[1]  

This is why, McCaulley makes clear, “The very telling of the Christmas story is an act of resistance.” We don’t often think of the Christmas story in this way, we have tamed and domesticated the story and radical implications of Christ’s birth. But it is an act of resistance against the powers that be that continue to thwart God’s justice and love and peace in the world.

That’s why I decided not to preach on Matthew 2 this morning. I couldn’t handle it. These are difficult and divisive times, people are scared and anxious. Everything seems to be unraveling all around us. That’s why I felt drawn to John 1, to the life and light of God enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, we cannot avoid the darkness of the age and the suffering occurring at the hands of the superrich and powerful.  But we also need to sit with the light of Christ for a season.  We need light. Stars. We need epiphanies. We don’t exactly know when Christ was born. But for the first Christians, his birth was the bright morning star (Rev. 22:16) giving new light to the world. The celebration of his birth was placed near the darkest time of the year (in the Northern hemisphere). Now, while it is not historically true to say Jesus was born on December 25, it’s symbolically true. The early Church had a brilliant idea to place the birth of Jesus around this time of year, near the winter solstice, when, as the ancients believed, a new sun was born.  The Church, around 350, formally placed Jesus’ birth near the longest night of the year (north of the Equator), among days associated with two Roman solar festivals. 

On Wednesday, we celebrated the birth of Christ our light.  On Christmas Eve, relying on the light coming from the Christ Candle, I read John 1 in the dark. We heard, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). In his carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley (1707-1778) beautifully captured this image: “Light and life to all he brings/ risen with healing in his wings.” [2]

Light.  Light as source of life.  Christ’s life as light.  Light that allows us to see and be seen.  Life and light, surrounding us and filling us.  If you think of it, right now, we are being bathed in light. We are in the light.  The light from the sun allows us to see, but as we see, and right now, we are also in light.  As the psalmist said, “In your light,” O God, “we see light” (Psalm 36:9).  We are in the light of God. And the light of God (1 Jn. 1:5), this life, this presence of God—shines!

The seventeenth-century Dutch painter, Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656), painted many biblical scenes. His nickname was Gherado della notti, “Gerard of the night,” as he was known for painting night scenes containing artificial light. In his piece Adoration of the Shepherds, the infant Jesus literally shines. Jesus is the source of light in the painting, the light originates in him.

I love this piece because it’s a reminder that the light of Christ shines in the darkness!  I take enormous comfort in knowing this. We’re so prone to think dualistically in terms of light vs. dark, of light casting away darkness.  But that’s not John’s understanding here.  That wasn’t his experience of the Risen Christ.  Christ shows us that the light shines in the darkness—which means darkness is never completely dark.  There’s something of God’s light and life present even in the darkest moments of our lives. And the good news is that the light of Christ shines in the darkest times and the darkness hasn't power to overcome it.  Christ is Solus Invictus: Unconquered Light.

So, while it might not be historically true to say that Jesus was born on December 25, it’s definitely true at a deeper level, symbolically, theologically, psychologically, it’s true experientially that the light of Christ shines even in the darkest days and the darkness, in the end, has no power over the light, for the light of Christ cannot be defeated.  And, we could say, with Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)—who died on this day in 1894—that in the bleak midwinter Christ’s light shines all the brighter.[3]

Rossetti’s midwinter should not be taken literally.  It, too, is a symbol, a metaphor for an interior midwinter, a life filled with short days, longing for light, longing for life.  She’s waiting for something new to be born in her, the birth of new life in the frozen places of her heart.  Rossetti once wrote, “What would I give for a heart of flesh to warm me through, instead of this heart of stone, ice-cold whatever I do!... What would I give for tears! Not smiles but scalding tears, to wash the black mark clean, and to thaw the frost of years…”[4] 

She’s waiting for a thaw, for the warmth of fire, the warmth of life.  She’s waiting for light to be born again in her, to bring her into a new day, a new life, a new world. She hopes, like we all do, to be able to give the warmth of our hearts—heart of flesh, pumping with blood and life and passion—to Christ, the Christ whose light was born in Bethlehem and still shines brightly in the world, and maybe all the more brightly in the dark places of our lives and our world. 

This is the good news of Christmas! God’s light has come into the world. To tell this story—to affirm it, to live it—is always an act of resistance against the powers that be. As we move into the new year, may we seek after that light and walk in the light of the Lord (Is 2:5). Amen.

[1]Esau McCaulley, “TheBloody Fourth Day of Christmas,” The New York Times, December 27, 2019.

[2] First included in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739).
[3] Rosetti’s poem “A Christmas Carol” was first published in the January 1872 issue of Scribner’s Monthly. The poem was later set to music by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) and given the name “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The carol was included in The English Hymnal, published in 1906.
[4] Cited by Jan Marsh, Christina Rosetti: A Literary Biography (New York: Faber and Faber, 2012), 24.

24 December 2019

With Us - Never Without Us

Christmas Eve

On this holy night, we gather to hear the ancient story when God in love sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save it. The story of our salvation, a song of breathtaking joy, a story and song of light and hope.  We come for different reasons. We’re here to worship and fall on our knees in gratitude and praise. We’re here because it’s tradition, we like the light and shadows of this service, we want a silent night, a moment of calm to pause and take stock of our lives, remember Christmases long ago, the people we miss this night. Maybe you’re here because this has been a tough year, the world seems especially dark these days, the nation is divided and we’re bracing for the year ahead, maybe things appear to be falling apart on the inside or on the outside, and you’re looking for some light—even just a glimmer of light—a little hope.

I can’t give you that light or hope. No pastor or priest can. No church can, either. This light or hope is not in any pastor, priest, or church. But we can do is point toward it, we can bear witness to it and that’s ultimately what we’re doing this evening. We preach tidings of great joy. We tell the story—again and again. “Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear?  Do you know what I know?” Can you see what we see? Can you hear what we hear? Do you know what we know?  Do you know it—really know that to you a savior is born. To you—to all of you, to y’all—is born a savior. The text is plural, which means it includes everyone. To us, for us, with us, a savior—to you, for you, with you.

Do you know—really know in the core of your being, not your head, in your heart, in your gut—the savior’s deep and abiding, fierce and tenacious love for you? This is the tidings of great joy the angels sing about. And, to be honest, it pains me, it breaks my heart, actually, to meet people who have never heard this good news, or can’t hear this news, or have forgotten this part of the gospel, or know and have rejected it because they think they are somehow unlovable. As John wrote in his Gospel, as he knew in his bones, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that world might be saved through him (John 3:17). Yes, God sent the Son because God is love (1 John 4:8), and God sent the Son because you and I are worth the journey, we’re worth saving. The two go together. Contemporary writer Sue Monk Kidd gets to the heart of the matter. She discovered in her journey into God, that: “God’s love is so immense and powerful,” she says, “so tender and dazzling with joy, that most of us have only felt the hem of it. We have underestimated its power, its availability, its passion. Likewise, we have underestimated our ability to tap into it.”[1]

Why is it so difficult for the “the soul to know its worth”?[2] I know far too many Christians who struggle to hear this word, and I know folks who used to be Christian but are no longer because they never heard about the love—the judgment, yes, but never the love—people who never really heard the angel’s announcement to the shepherds, never heard good news, the evangel, a word that is really evangelical (in the truest meaning of that word), people who never heard from a pulpit or in Sunday School or in their family about their inherent worth and value as children of God.

You and I matter in the eyes of God.  We are worth the risk, the hurt, the rejection, the suffering of the Son because the Son risked the hurt and rejection and suffering and even death to show us that we are the object of God’s love, the apple of God’s eye (Psalm 17:8).  What if when we sing Joy to the World we remember that we, too, are the joy of God’s world?  You and I matter.  Are we broken and wounded and fragile and imperfect and selfish and insecure and fearful? Sure. Of course. Absolutely. But that doesn’t matter. All of this might be true at any given moment, but it doesn’t replace or remove what is always true—that nevertheless, we bear the image of God.  The birth of Jesus means that being born, being human, is holy. You are worthy of love because God’s love makes you worthy. To reject our worth is to reject God.  Your humanity, your existence, right now, matters to God.  

In fact, as theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) reminded us again and again, the astounding message of Christmas, of God’s Incarnation, is this: “The divine being and life and act takes place with ours,” he wrote, “and it is only as the divine takes place that ours takes place. To put it in the simplest way, what unites God and us men [and women] is that [God] does not will to be God without us,…”[3] God does will to be God without us. With us—never without us.

The good news is that God isn’t aloof, apart, or separate from us. God has come close and always wants to get close, to share our breath, our hopes and dreams, to give us life, to awaken us and call us to life—why?—so that we know our inherent worth as children of God—why?—so that our lives can then be given for the world, for our neighbor in love, especially in this dark days. For, like the child we celebrate this night, none of us were born for ourselves to do whatever we want; like this child, we were created to reveal the glory of God and reflect that glory, reflect God’s light with our lives, as souls, by God’s grace, who know our worth. When this happens others might come to know what we know and celebrate this holy night. It’s the gift God continues to give through you and me. So, joy to the world.  Joy to you!

Image: The Nativity by Guido da Siena (c.1250-1300).

[1] Sue Monk Kidd, God’s Joyful Surprise: Finding Yourself Loved (HarperOne, 2016), 2.
[2] From “O Holy Night,” music by Adolphe Adam (1803-1856). Original text by poet Placide Cappeau (1808-1877).  John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893) revised the text for English in 1855.
[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994), 7.