The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…
Many of you will remember our evening Christmas Eve service, and its conclusion. It is one of the few times, as a congregation, at which we gather in the dark. After prayers, scripture, sermon and Eucharist, there is a pause. The organ plays a bit, preparing the way for the singing of Silent Night.
Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht
Alles schlaft, einsem vacht…
Schlaf im himmlischer Ruh
Schlaf im himmlischer Ruh
The usher team douses the light in the nave. Clergy pass a bit of flame and fire from one candle to another. At the start there is a startling darkness. There is a depth of darkness, a deep and empty kind of quiet. There is a yearning, there, a longing, then, a waiting. I ponder it, following Christmas, every year, and more so as years go by. People who would not otherwise darken the door of a church on a sunlit Sunday, will and do stand in the dark, and sing songs in the night. Now, what is that about? Most of our worship is on Sunday morning, in the light. But on Christmas Eve we sing ‘songs in the night’, as Job might have it said. Songs in the night.
I remember our daughter now 34, singing Away in a Manger, at age 3, in a country church, with the sense and scent of milking present, in the dark. I remember a front pew of visiting foreign students, in a city church at midnight, trying to make sense singing out of the Methodist hymnal, which many were holding upside down, in the dark. I remember, a church later, a rustle, like a covey of birds taking flight, in the rows of the Sopranos and bases, near midnight, when a wedding ring was offered and receive and the deal was struck, Bass to Soprano, after an anthem sung, in the dark. I remember your faces here in Marsh Chapel, candles lit, moving through the familiar verses of a familiar carol, a hymn somehow though sung into an utter strangeness, in the dark. Songs in the night.
It is a mystical moment. A Nicholas of Cusa moment. Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) would have reminded us of the importance of a learned ignorance. He would have recalled the priority of the spiritual journey. Cusa would have taught us about the central importance of an experience of de-centering of the executive self. He might have seen in the dark a kind of divine presence. Cusa I think would have celebrated as a very sign of the divine your own personal trek to church that night. And this morning. Nicholas of Cusa may have been on your minds, or someone’s, that dark night, four weeks ago. For Christmas Eve, candles held, is one of the few moments in community when we see the light, see the light in the dark, really sense and see the light in which we see light. It is a nearly unique culturally affirmed moment in which we wonder about appearance and reality. We are freed, given permission even, to stand in a dark, empty presence that envelops us, dislocates us, unnerves us, and embraces us. I can see you holding the candle, that night. I can hear you singing the carol, that night. I can recall the Thurman choir in resonant, redolent voice, that night. I can remember you receiving a benediction that night.
Is it too much to hope that the darkness of Christmas and the light of Epiphany might throughout the year cause us to see light? What were we doing here on Christmas Eve? What was that dark moment, candle lit, all about anyway? We arrived by mystery, live by mystery, and leave by mystery. A mysterium tremendum.
En una noche oscura.
Con ansias en amores inflamadas
O! Dichosa Ventura!
Sali sin ser notada
Estando ya mi casa sosegada
The gospel today illumines our darkness, lightens our darkness, in order to minimize our metaphysical mistakes, our metaphysical malpractice. Our readings today are all about light. The Gospel recites an Isaian prophecy, read already earlier, that light will come even to the least, the last, the lost, the outcast region of Galilee, the abode of the non-religious. Christ came for the ungodly not for the godly, says Paul in Romans. The Gospel shows us four who saw light and left nets and became disciples. ‘Peter and Andrew, free and grown. James and John, young and home.’ The light of the Gospel is candle light, here and there, emerging but a long way from noonday heat, sporadic, personal—and beautiful.
1. With Peter, light the candle of incarnation.
As Faulker said of us, ‘they learn nothing save through suffering, and understanding nothing save what is written in blood’. We might do a bit better daily to pursue a learned ignorance. We risk harm when we mistake other things for incarnation. The gospel of Matthew affirms the incarnation of the Christ, in the flesh. That is—children’s flesh, adolescent’s flesh, young couples’ flesh, people, people, people. The image of God. To restore this image we give ourselves over each day and week to do the hard work of preaching and liturgical preparation. We desire the rich announcement of incarnation. That is, we are in the people business. We are in the grace business, not the talent business. We are in the grace business, not the cleverness business. Here. For example as P Gomes wrote:
A few years ago the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University and I engaged in one of our frequent exchanges of pulpits and each of us took an old sermon across the river to preach in the other’s pulpit. It is probably no secret to you that sermons are recycled. If the great works of Bach can be heard over and over and over again, why cannot the best offerings that we have to make? The only rule is that you don’t repeat it to the same congregation. So Dean Thornburg came over here to Memorial Church to preach to Harvard, and I went over to Marsh Chapel to preach to Boston University. In the business of the when we exchanged the information for our respective bulletins so that the people would know what it was we thought we were saying, we each found out what the other was preaching about. Dean Thornburg chose to give his sermon the title “God and the Know-it-all”. The sermon that I took from my pile without consultation with Bob was titled “Ordinary People”. Someone who knew us both wondered if we were trying to insult our respective congregations on that morning, and there were some people at Boston University, sensitive souls, who rather resented the fact that the preacher of Harvard University should preach to them about ordinary people.
2. With Andrew, light the candle of integrity.
The ongoing spiritual journey affirms integrity not just innocence. Innocence is not holiness, nor holiness innocence. While there are many facets to this single haphazard metamedical blunder, the matter of sex alone should make it clear. In our region we hardly talk about sex—a tragic silence given the unfiltered filth of the internet that has invaded most homes far beyond our poor power to add or detract. After the flames of the 60’s Jack Tuell and a couple of other Bishops sat over coffee and came up with the phrase, “in singleness celibacy, in marriage fidelity”. Given the chaos of the time, the phrase made some ordering sense. But today it has served to muzzle and muffle fully honest talk about sex. Tuell’s own confessional, repositioning sermon on homosexuality specifically mentions, and laments, the phrase. Our forgetfulness about the nature of life as a journey has caused good people to mask their struggle for integrity, in failure as well as success, with a false innocence, assuming there can be no integrity without innocence. We need to find our voice again, to honor God’s good gift of sexuality, and its best expression within the sacramental rite of marriage. We need a fuller conversation. And a more theological one. Couples marry later today than once they did. They are far more ready for a theological consideration of love, sexuality and marriage than years before. They can think together about the Song of Solomon. You can travel toward integrity and holiness without innocence. I might redact Tuell this way: in singleness integrity; in partnership fidelity.
More generally, we know the process of repentance: to apologize, seek pardon, find restitution, and move onward. We are often our own very worst enemies in forgetting this. We tend to tell our biggest lies to ourselves.
3. With James, light the candle of divine presence.
The true light that enlightens everyone…Some of that illumination, for some, may come with a mystical theology that does not replace God with Jesus. As a Christian, I say, Jesus is not all the God there is. We are still wallowing, as Doug Hall warned a generation ago (you see it does take a long time), in a Unitarianism of the Second Person of the Trinity. The gentle wisdom of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Huston Smith and so many others might have broadened our creaky Christomonism. And our sense of the mystery of life. As Smith repeated, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. Yes, we want to name the name. The name that is above every name. But that name does not drown the others, like a Gulf hurricane, or bomb the others, like a Desert Storm, or burn the others like a terrorist hijacking, or make others ‘surrender’ like a thief. When John wrote “I am the way…”, he meant that wherever there is a way– there is the Christ, wherever there is truth– there is Christ, wherever there is life– there Christ is, too. The day I met the Clergy Session of Conference, at Syracuse University, to be passed on for orders, Huston Smith himself walked over to the session from his office on the other side of the quad. He stood by me, outside as I waited. I was nervous. He assured me I had no reason to be. We need that voice today! Decades later I read Smith’s credo: We are in good hands, so it well behooves us to bear one another’s burdens. The mystery of God is greater than the measure of our mind, and greater than the Christology of the Reformation, and greater than the purpose driven life. The greater the body of knowledge, the longer the shore line of mystery that surrounds it.
4. With John, light the candle of generosity.
The de centering of the self, the illumination of soul, sometimes comes with real generosity, disciplined generosity. Is there a part of your soul which, once illumined by real generosity, would illumine all the rest? The faithful life involves specific, serious commitments with regard to time, to people, and to money. To be a Christian is to worship weekly, to keep faith in marriage and other close relationships, and to give away 10% of what one earns.
The pervasive materialism of our culture receives its rejection in generosity, not in mere giving. The enduring sense of entitlement in our county receives its contradiction in generosity, not in mere giving. The abject loneliness of non communal life receives its denial in generosity, not in mere giving. We have spent too much time trying to encourage people, bit by bit, to keep faith. We need the illumination of real and disciplined generosity.
How would your spouse feel if you said, “You know, I was 40% faithful this year, a 5% increase from last year.” That would not fly in my home. Other things would fly (pans, knives, etc), but that would not! Nor can this euphemistic blather about “abundance”, a culture of abundance, last much longer. We need full affirmation of a culture of scarcity, not abundance, and the virtues, once our stock in trade, that come with scarcity: frugality, saving, temperance, industry, and, yes, tithing.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…
Will somebody light a candle? Is it too much to hope that the darkness of Christmas and the light of Epiphany might throughout the year cause us to see light? What were we doing here on Christmas Eve? What was that dark moment, candle lit, all about anyway? Will somebody light a candle? Sing a song in the night? In the dark, see the light?
Silent Night, Holy Night
Son of God, Love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
~Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel