Break forth, O beauteous, heavenly light: A sermon for Christmas Day, 2017

One morning in the first week of December, I was walking back to my office after having coffee with a colleague on State St. It was around 10 am and a bright sunny day. As I came toward the church, I looked up and saw something remarkable, perhaps miraculous. The sun was at the perfect angle in the sky so that it shone directly through the tower windows. I had never seen this before. It filled the tower with light that shone even more brightly than the sun.

But that wasn’t the remarkable thing. On the tower walls, and I have no idea how this occurred, there was reflected light from the sun; it was patchy but it went up the tower walls. I had no idea where the light was coming from but it was a sight that was so ethereal, so bright, so beautiful, that it took my breath away.

 

I’ve been around this place for over eight years. I thought I was familiar with all of its nooks and crannies (well, to be sure, I’ve never climbed up the tower to see the bells). I thought I had seen it from every angle, at every time of day or night. As beautiful as Grace Church is, it’s become so very familiar to me that I don’t expect to see something new, I don’t expect to encounter and experience beauty in a new way.

There’s another image of Grace that I find quite powerful in a very different way. You may have seen the Little Free Library that we’ve installed on the Carroll St. side of the church, in the Karlen Garden. A few weeks after its installation, we put lights in it so that it is a beacon throughout the night. Then, for Christmas, a tree with lights was added next to it. It’s a lovely little scene on what at night is usually a rather dark stretch of sidewalk. It’s a beacon of light that shines hope in a dark place.

Those are two very different sorts of light—on the one hand, the transcendent, the ethereal, the brilliant—the sort of light described in the wonderful hymn we just sang “Break forth, O beauteous, heavenly light”. On the other hand, the sort of light alluded to in our gospel reading, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

It’s hard for us in the twenty-first century to imagine the power of that last phrase—the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. We live in a world of light. Even in the darkest night in modern cities there are few places that are not with at least some artificial illumination. And even if one leaves the city, there are few places where the horizon is not lit, at least dimly by the lights of houses or villages or cities.

In the ancient world, things were very different. Artificial light was a precious commodity and a candle or an oil lamp did little to dispel the darkness. The sense that the darkness, with all of the danger that lurked in the shadows, could easily overwhelm one, was constantly present. Those fears were in part the origin of stories about ghosts and goblins and things that creep and crawl in the night. But it wasn’t just stories. True danger did lurk in the darkness—predatory animals, bandits.

So when the gospel writer says, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” he is expressing a hope—he is expressing something he himself had never experienced, for every candle burns out, every oil runs out of fuel, and neither sheds its light further than a few feet. In some sense that experience is rather the like the effects of the light in our Little Free Library—a beacon shining in the darkness, but not strong enough, not bright enough to dispel the shadows and banish the fear.

Yet that little light, even a candle does shine in the darkness, and it points to greater light, reminding us of the light that illumines the world and our lives. It is a beacon of hope, a symbol of safety in a dark world.

There’s a way in which these two different kinds of light are illustrative of the incarnation—of that which we celebrate day, the birth of Jesus Christ, Son of God. There is the transcendent, the ethereal, the overwhelming: the light from heaven that shines upon the world turning night into day, blinding us if we look too closely, too intently, for too long. And there is the weak, flickering light of a candle, easily extinguished, barely noticeable from a few yards away.

There is God, transcendent, omnipotent. And there is God, born of a woman, weak, vulnerable. We have some sense of the power and majesty of God, even if we can only use symbol and metaphor; and as humans we all have some experience of the fragility and vulnerability of newborn infants.

What is difficult for us is to put those two notions together, that the god of majesty and power became human like us, lived like us, had a body just like us.

That central paradox of our faith, that we see God’s power and majesty even in the new-born babe in the manger, is most clearly shown on the cross which was, as St. Paul said, “power made perfect in weakness.” In the crucifixion, we see God suffering like us, suffering for us because of God’s love for us and the world.

It is a mystery we cannot comprehend; a mystery we cannot even express adequately in words. But it is our faith. To see in that newborn babe a light shining in the darkness so strong and true that the darkness cannot overwhelm or comprehend it, grasp it, if you will, is to see on the cross, the power of God saving the world.

Where are the little lights in your life, or in your world, where are those lights shining in the darkness, lights that point to that beauteous, heavenly light. How are you such light for others, for strangers, the poor, the oppressed, the suffering? How does your light shine that through you others see the light of Christ?

May we all bear witness to that light that shines in the darkness; may we shed that light abroad through our lives, our witness and our work, may the joy, power, and love of the incarnation of Christ shine brightly in us all and in the world. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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