The True Light
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I’ve always thought there was a good reason that we celebrate Christmas four days after the shortest day of the year. You often hear at Christmas time how early Christians co-opted the Roman holiday of Saturnalia or Sol Invictus like this is supposed to make a difference. Rightly or wrongly December 25th was chosen as the day. I love the song “Last Month of the Year” as it’s done by the Blind Boys of Alabama (Tell me when was Jesus born? The laaast month of the year!”). At the same time I know it’s unlikely that Jesus was born in December – many think it was September. This is not something to get hung up about or lose our faith over. I think there’s a reason that many festivals which include lights happen at this time of year. Diwali. Hanukkah. We need something to dispel the darkness don’t we? I was talking to my mum recently about Christmases of old and we were talking about how we would go visit my brother after our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service and how much I loved to see the Christmas lights on the Kingsway. I was also apparently looking out for Santa and as we listened to the radio tracked his progress as the announcer gave us the latest update from NORAD. For many it is at Christmas that the seeming mundane – wax dripping down candles, a man’s voice on the radio, lights strung up outside houses – collides with the belief that anything is possible – hoofbeats on the roof, the Word become flesh, Immanuel, God with us. I never look forward to putting the lights out – like most chores and like most chores I build it up in my mind into a much bigger thing than it is. As much as I didn’t look forward to it, I look forward to 5pm (or 430pm on the shortest days) because that is the time when I will be able to plug them in. Why do we do this? Why do we sit in a darkened church and light candles? What word are we longing to hear?
John’s Christmas story doesn’t contain the usual shepherds, manger, Magi. John’s Christmas story contains a Word. John’s Christmas story contains a colliding of the ineffable – of the sublime, with the everyday, with the mundane. John’s Christmas story starts in the beginning. Before time was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The word John uses is Logos, it’s familiar to many of us. It’s been translated word, speech, reason, principle, logic. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus has used it to signify “the principle that gave the world order.” The Jewish philosopher Philo used it to describe “the bond that held all created things together.” 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. This reality that is so often unseen. This transcendent to which John attests – in God all things have come into being and hold together.
Against this we have an image of a man. John the Gospel writer doesn’t name him as such but we know him as John the Baptist. Born of a couple who were not supposed to be able to have children. Growing up and an appearing in the desert, testifying, pointing to the one who was coming – the true light that was coming into the world. These eternal ineffable truths juxtaposed with the image of this long haired animal skin wearing prophet eating locusts and honey who told everyone about the one who was coming.
And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. The true light, that enlightens everyone, was coming into the world, has come into our world, comes into our world, will come into our world. As one writer puts it, “Jesus is the space and time in which humanity gets caught up in the movement of God.” In this little baby lying in a manger the fullness of God lives. In this little baby God lives among us, and will die among us and will rise among us to signal the beginning of a new creation – the reconciling of all things – all people, all of creation to himself through the person of His son. We sang a song for the first time here last Sunday called “The Word of Life” which shows beautifully how the divine and the so called mundane (and I say so-called because I don’t believe in making a strong distinction between the earthly and the spiritual when the two have been brought together in Christ). It goes “In a byre near Bethlehem, passed by many a wandering stranger, the most precious Word of Life, lay there gurgling in a manger.” Then “In a garden just at dawn, near the grave of human violence, the most precious Word of life, cleared his throat and ended silence.” “Mary” he called out.
This is the one who we proclaim tonight. This is the one towards whom the candles point, the words, point, the songs point. We must recognize the darkness too. We need only look around our world. We need only look within our own hearts. John recognizes the darkness. Christ was in the very world he had made yet the world didn’t know him. We know what that’s like. Perhaps we knew him once as a child or youth and “life” has been in the way. Perhaps we’ve never known him. Perhaps we’ve known him for a long time and we want to know him more, recognizing that there’s so much to know.
One of my favourite writers is Frederick Buechner. He wrote the following on waiting for Christ at Advent:
The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton.
In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen.
You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you've never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart.
The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.
The Salvation Army Santa Claus clangs his bell. The sidewalks are so crowded you can hardly move. Exhaust fumes are the chief fragrance in the air, and everybody is as bundled up against any sense of what all the fuss is really about as they are bundled up against the windchill factor.
But if you concentrate just for an instant, far off in the deeps of you somewhere you can feel the beating of your heart. For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath.
I was talking earlier about Christmas as a child. Do you remember the wonder you felt? The awe? Presents from Santa Claus under the tree, the cookies and milk gone. A man’s voice on the radio tracking Santa Claus. This wonderment we felt when we were new creations. May this sense of wonderment be regained, renewed in us this Christmas time, as we are made new in the most precious Word of Life, in Christ Jesus. The wait is over my friends. Christ is here. God grant that this may this be true in all our hearts.