My thanks to Dean Hill for the generosity of the opportunity to preach, and to my husband Soren for the generosity of letting me preach the lectionary texts on the day they were actually assigned; he took on the far more difficult preaching task this Gospel lesson a few weeks ago.
Did you catch a glimpse this Christmas? A glimpse of light? A glimpse of glory? A glimpse of salvation?
Perhaps, out of the corner of your eye, this Christmas, your vision was warmed by the hazy glow of stringed lights, and you felt the Light of God well up in you for a moment. A glimpse of the light of the Star over Bethlehem.
Perhaps, in the quiet hum of a carol over the percussion hiss of the radiator and crackle of the fire, your ear caught a tune both new and familiar. Perhaps you caught a note of angel song. A glimpse of the glory of the heavenly host singing.
Perhaps, in the sticky embrace of a child with candy cane-stained hands or in the cool, dry kiss of an elderly parent or grandparent, you felt a sense of connection, communion with the past and the present and the promise of the future all at once; perhaps you caught a brush of a King’s cloak or a shepherd’s homespun. A glimpse of salvation offered to all, prince and pauper alike.
Perhaps you caught a glimpse this Christmas. I hope and pray that you did. It’s what we wait for, what we long for in the preparation of Advent. We wait and long for an experience of the presence and power of God in humanity; we wait for Christ.
And the author of Luke-Acts introduces us to Simeon and Ana, adding narrative to a long wait for consolation and redemption. In Luke-Acts we have a gospel that grasps for hope in the aftermath of a failed real and apocalyptically imagined political revolution, struggles for some kernel of identity in the midst of real or imagined rejection, and wrings its hands over real and imagined competition from fellow Jews, fellow philosophers and fellow cults. And lurking in the background of the composition and compilation of this text, a growing anxiety over fellow Christians who believe differently and are unafraid to say so. In the gathering of this text and these stories, we find early layers of polemics, perhaps against Marcion, as Joseph Tyson has argued. So just as the writers and compilers of Luke-Acts wait and hope for a crystallized Christian identity that will resolve theological conflict, so Luke-Acts crafts characters who wait and hope for a crystallized, or perhaps we should say, incarnate figure who can bring heft, weight, reality to the longings of Israel. Simeon waits for consolation, and Ana waits for redemption. These are personal stories but they are universal hopes, and both Simeon and Ana are rewarded for their long wait with a glimpse of Jesus. And for them, a glimpse is enough.
Even Paul, in the midst of his grumpiest letter to the assemblies in Galatia, in his long wait, manages to catch a glimpse of Christmas. The previous sentence needs some unpacking on several levels. First, the letter to the Galatians is undoubtedly Paul’s grumpiest letter, although that is hardly a formal New Testament studies term. In this letter, Paul forgoes his usual epistolary custom of giving thanks. For example, the beginning greetings in Romans are followed by, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.” In Philippians, Paul and Timothy write, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” In Galatians 1, we move right from the greeting to “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all,” and things go downhill from there, until Paul finally resorts to name calling in chapter 3, “You foolish Galatians!”
Paul does not seem to know or, if he knows, to care about the infancy or birth narrative of Jesus. For Paul, his primary focus is on the glimpse of the risen Christ that has caught him up in a transformed hope for the reconciliation and consolation of God to all people, including and especially the Gentiles. However, this passage in Galatians 4 is the closest we get to a Christmas message in Paul, “In the fullness of time, God sent God’s Son, born of a woman…” But I would argue that Paul’s real glimpse of the meaning, consequence, and yes, incarnational theology of Christmas comes in verse 7: “So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” Because we have caught a glimpse that God lives among us, and because we can call Jesus brother, we are able to be called children of God, and because we are children, heirs of the promise of God. This is Pauline incarnational good news.
But let’s be honest: Paul is caught in an apoplectic and apocalyptic waiting game, and I’m not sure that for Paul, that one glimpse of Christ is enough. And, if we’re honest, too, about our own Christmas experience, there might have been a little Galatians-time in the midst of our waiting for our next glimpse of God. Gratitude left unoffered, frustration over expectations unmet, tensions or infighting amidst family and friends, and perhaps even a little name-calling. Or worse, the deep tug of disappointment, the gnawing absence of those gone. Paul knew these feelings, too. An uneasy waiting. They, too, are part of the Christmas story, because a glimpse is just that, a glimpse.
Momentary, fleeting; the briefest flicker at the corner of vision, a single strain of music, the quick brush of a hand. So often, our religious experiences, those saving moments, are a mere glimpse. Christmas comes and goes, a blink of the eye, it seems, and five Christmases have flown by. A theological question lies before us today, modelled by Paul, Simeon, and Ana: How can these glimpses be enough?
We might expect that someone like Mother Theresa, Saint of Calcutta and founder of the Missionaries of Charity, who worked with the poor, sick, and dying in India and around the world, must have regularly experienced the light of God in her life. She must have had such a constant vision of God to do the work she did for so many decades of her life!
In reality, the exact opposite is true. In Come Be My Light, an autobiographical collection of writings compiled and edited posthumously by her closest confessors, we find that after a powerful experience of a call to serve the poor, Mother Theresa experienced decades of silence, loneliness, and darkness. In the midst of the explosion of her work and ministry and the rapid expansion of her order, she never once caught a glimpse of God like the one that so inspired her.
Writing to one of her spiritual directors, she recounted, “Now Father – since [the age of] 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss – this untold darkness – this loneliness – this continual longing for God – which gives me that pain deep down in my heart. Darkness is such that I really do not see – neither with my mind nor my reason. The place of God in my soul is blank. – There is no God in me – When the pain of longing is so great – I just long and long for God.”
Mother Theresa’s story is not some happy-ending fairy-tale where after a call experience and a brief narrative tension of divine silence, a light from heaven breaks in to provide resolution. Rather, Mother Theresa’s story is a very human tale of waiting, and of finding enough in the glimpses of God to sustain us for the work of faith, for the process of sanctification.
We have a theological term for this; you’ve probably heard the phrase, “A dark night of the soul.” The phrase comes from a poem and exposition (La noche oscura del alma) written by St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish mystic. John describes the crisis that people of faith sometimes encounter, those periods of absence, longing, and confusion. We who live in New England, who have just passed through the solstice, the longest, darkest night of the year, know this experience intimately. But John of the Cross writes:
INTO this dark night souls begin to enter when God draws them forth from the state of beginners—which is the state of those that meditate on the spiritual road—and begins to set them in the state of progressives—which is that of those who are already contemplatives—to the end that, after passing through it, they may arrive at the state of the perfect, which is that of the Divine union of the soul with God.
Now, I don’t know if John Wesley read or knew John of the Cross’s poem, but I think this is about as good a description of sanctification as I have come across. The salvation process, the process of being made well, of being made salvus, well, whole, the process of receiving balm for our sin-sick souls, is the work of our entire lives as we continue to grow more open to the grace of God flowing into us. Salvation, a glimpse of Christmas, does not mean that we wake up the next morning feeling spiritually whole and perfect. The Christmas season, through Paul and Simeon and Ana, also teaches us that faith is about waiting.
The question still lingers. We have a little comfort from Theresa, John of the cross, Simeon, Anna, and yes, even Paul, but the catch in the throat is still there. How can this glimpse of Christmas be enough?
Theresa washed, fed, and cared for the dying alongside her fellow sisters in the Missionaries of Charity; silent John worked closely with St. Theresa of Avila to found the barefoot Carmelites in Spain, Simeon reaches out to a young family scraping enough together for the offering for their son in the temple; Anna, widowed for decades, spends her days in the temple sharing conversation and hope with those who enter; Paul has his beloved assemblies, whom he writes to and longs for even when he is at his grumpiest.
A glimpse of Christmas is enough when we join in with others in a community of faith. A glimpse of Christmas is supported, encouraged, and perhaps even sustained through the regular rhythms of a life in the family of God, through the interconnected feeling of participation in the body of Christ. You might not feed the physical and spiritual needs of thousands, but you can bring a homemade dish to our potluck next week and get involved in our abolitionist chapel group. You might not punctuate your contemplative life with communal, daily participation in the full liturgy of the hours, but you can be present in worship come Sunday. You might not be a prophet, but you might share a good word with a member going through a difficult time or a visitor overwhelmed by the space and service. And you might even write someone a letter, a physical letter, opened with a proper line of thanksgiving. When a community of faith shares its glimpses with one another, these glimpses, seen at different angles, heard with different pitches, and felt with different textures, begin to coalesce into a clearer sense of God’s vision.
I hope and pray, brothers and sisters, that you have caught a glimpse of light, glory, and salvation this Christmas, and I also pray that those saving glimpses you have had are enough for the work of Christmas to begin in this community, in your community of faith.
Or, as Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, former Dean of Marsh Chapel, put it in the Christmas poem we read here every year:
When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among brothers, To make music in the heart.
Have you caught a glimpse of God this Christmas? Is it enough? Enough to sustain the work of faith and faithfulness, enough for an assurance of things hoped for, enough for a conviction of things unseen?
May we pray?
Come, Lord Jesus, give us a glimpse of you this Christmas. Sustain us for the work ahead, so that the glimpses we have had of your light, glory, and salvation are enough, by your grace and the support of a beloved community. Come, be our light. Amen.