This past Thursday night a few of us enjoyed an evening in Frederick - Churches by Candlelight. One highlight was perhaps the most extensive scenic reproduction of the nativity I have ever seen. It’s was called the Putz Narrated Nativity Scene. The narration of the Christmas story was complemented by lights focussing on various parts of the scene -- beginning with Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem and complete with shepherds out in the hilly fields in back left, an angel in the sky with a bright star. There were the wise men with their camels in the front right, with Herod’s palace just uphill from them.
The birth scene was set in under a rocky ledge behind a simple inn -- Mary, Joseph and the baby surrounded by grazing animals. A complete scene - perhaps the most complete I have ever witnessed!
Each week here we have watched our nativity scene progress on our fireplace mantle. First Mary and Joseph on the road, then a few shepherds, then the stable and the empty manger, then, finally the baby arrives, the angels sing, the wise men come. It’s all there! What a story!
But, wait a minute. Isn’t something missing? Missing even from that very elaborate Putz Narrated Nativity Scene? Oh, yes, that little incident about Herod, when he got angry and killed all the children around Bethlehem, something we call the slaughter of the innocents. But it’s right there in this morning’s Gospel reading. What happened to that part of the story? I’ve looked at many nativity scenes through the years, but I’ve never seen all those dead children. What’s going on here?
Well, it’s obvious what’s going on. Christmas is a season of joy and peace, a happy season, a merry season. There’s just no place in our pretty picture of Christmas for dead children. This is the season of light; don’t spoil it with a dark story. But then, why is this dark story there in the Gospel in the first place? Why is it there in this “good news?” Is it some kind of a mistake?
I don’t think it’s a mistake. Not at all. I think it’s there to tell us something about the nature of the light that has come into the world, something about what this light of Christ that has come into the world is all about. I think it’s there to challenge our newborn faith, this new light that we experience coming into the world at Christmas.
Something of the nature of the light of Christ is revealed to us in a passage from the Gospel of John that we read Christmas eve, John, Chapter one, Verse 5 -- “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. That is one amazing light!
Now, some two thousand years later, we can say that that light still shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. But, by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, the darkness has also not gone away. It’s still around. They’re both still here - the light of Christ and the darkness.
We may well wish that the story had gone in a different direction. We may deeply wish that the light had overcome the darkness and that there was no more darkness. But what we have is story of a kind of light that can hold its own with the darkness, and that has to be enough. Maybe its more than enough. You see, if the light had come, and now everything was light, there would be no more story, no more work for the light to do, not much would be required of that light.
In the midst of the joy and peace of Christmas we face a real temptation. It is a temptation to escape from the world we live in and live in a world of pure light, where there is no more darkness. We all succumb to this temptation. And at times, I’m sure each one of us needs to just escape the pain and suffering of the world, at least for a little while, and live in a world where everything is bright and happy and full of love and laughter. Perhaps that’s what the Holy Family did with the tender little Christ-child in their escape to Egypt, though as refugees, their life in Egypt couldn’t have been all that upbeat.
And I think that escape may be OK, even essential, for a time. But not for all the time. In due time, the baby Jesus grew up and returned to a dark and violent world. And so it is for us, not just because we need to face reality, though we certainly do need to face reality and not just try to build some private world of joy and light to live in. It’s because we are being invited here to go deep into the light that is Christ -- the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
So I think today’s Gospel reading about the murder of the children, is saying to us -- go deeper into the light you have glimpsed at Christmas. Can this new light of Christmas live in a world where children are massacred? Is it really the kind of light that can shine in the darkness and not be overcome by it?
Another passage from the new Testament, echoes the one about the light that shines in the darkness, and it’s from Philippians 2, verse 15. In the revised New English version it goes like this: “Show yourselves innocent and above reproach, faultless children of God, in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in a dark world.”
Now, as you know, stars shine all the time, day and night. But there’s nothing particularly special about stars shining in the day, right? But on a clear night, Wow! The stars can be spectacular. We live in a dark night. The opportunity we have is to shine like stars in that darkness. To do that, we will surely need to go deep into the source of the light which shines through us, that light that has come into the world at Christmas.
A number of stories of that deep light have come to mind as I reflected on this Gospel reading over the past few days since Christmas. Here a few just to lay beside these scriptures that speak of the nature of the light that shines in the darkness. Perhaps one will capture your imagination.
First, a story with an image from the natural world. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Native American of the Patawatomi Nation and a professor of Environmental and Forest Biology. She says that in late spring, she and her two girls pack up and head for a summer at a Biological Station on the shore of Cranberry Lake in the Adirondacks, where she studies moss. After supper, late in the long day, they clamber over rocks along the shore and get their feet wet dodging the waves. Along the lake shore of granite boulders, small beaches have been formed by wave action, undermining the sandy shore and excavating small caves.
She writes: “We poke our heads into the caves, brushing away the sticky spider webs that stretch over the entrances. The caves are small enough for kids to crouch in, but grownups are barred. We can only look. I lie on the lake-washed cobbles, my head in the cave, looking up into the dimness. It smells cool and moist like the dirt floor of an old cellar. The roof of the cave is a dark dome, sand laced together with a network of birch roots. The back of the cave disappears upward into shadow. What light there is moves eerily, reflections from the water outside wavering up and down the cave walls. And then, out of the corner of my eye, something glitters. Something green. Something fleeting, like the eye of a bobcat in the firelight.
I stretch out my finger toward the green shimmer and pull it away when all I feel is dampness, like a thin film of cold sweat. I half expect my finger to glow, but there’s nothing. The soil surface itself seems to give off light. As I turn my head, the light comes and goes, glittering like the iridescence on a hummingbird's throat, one moment sparking, the next moment black.
Schistostega pannata, the Goblin’s Gold, is unlike any other moss...”
She goes on to describe the wonderful way that this moss can grow and glow in a cave that receives only occasional reflections of sunlight off the water. A light, shining in the darkness, “asking very little from the world and yet glittering in response.” ------------------------------
Most of you know the story of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman in her 20’s who comes to my mind as a supreme example of light that can shine in the darkness and not be overcome by it. Etty chose, voluntarily, the concentration camp over escape to bring light and love among her people. She perished in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 29.
“By all accounts,” one commentator wrote, “Hillesum was a radiant presence inside the camps, and incandescent light amidst the dark night of Nazi terror.”
And Etty writes, “The misery is really big, but nevertheless, I often walk late in the evening when the day behind me has sunk away into profundity. I walk with whipping steps along the barbed wire and then it wells up out of my heart again and again -- I cannot help it, it is the way it is, it is of elementary power: Life is something wonderful and big.”
She goes on, “I know how very nervous people are. I know about the mourning and despotism and the impotent fury and the terrible sadism. I know it all. And yet -- at unguarded moments, when left of myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life, and her arms round me are so gentle and so protective and my own heartbeat is difficult to describe: so slow and so regular and so soft, almost muffled, but so constant, as it would never stop.”
“I cannot find the right words ... for that radiant feeling inside me, which encompasses but is untouched by all the suffering and the violence.”
This radiance, this light that Etty speaks of, this is no cheep, superficial escape into bliss, this is the light that has come into the world, the light in the darkness, that the darkness has not overcome. --------------------------------------------------------
Another example is Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit, whom his biographer Ursula King describes as “a traveler, explorer, scientist, priest, and mystic,” who was deeply “in love with the world, the world as a vast, living, tangible organism to which human beings belong as an integral part, and in love with God whose creative energy and living spirit pulsate through all that is.
” Early in his life, Teilhard came to know radiant light, once in the “crimson glow of matter” in the volcanic rock of his country home, and also in a personal experience of light emanating from the sacred heart of Jesus.
As a young man, after ten years of study, World War I broke out, and Teilhard chose to enlist as an ordinary soldier and worked throughout the war as a stretcher-bearer among the wounded at the front. Ursula King describes his war experience as “ a decisive and truly unforgettable step in his inner development.”
After a bloody battle Teilhard wrote,” Fundamentally, I’m glad to have been a Ypres. I hope I shall have emerged more of a man and more of a priest. And more that ever I believe that life is beautiful in the grimmest circumstances -- when you can see God, ever present in them.” -------------------------------------
Finally, I have known myself something of the way that the light of Christ shines in the darkness in my years as part of a clinic in a rough and under-served inner city neighborhood in Washington, DC. One Christmas I wrote about some of this light shining in that darkness. Here is a little excerpt;
Juanita comes with an urgent request.Unless she pays today her electricity will be cut off and what will happen in the night when her two young children cry out in fear when rats come scurrying across the room? You see, whenever abandoned buildings come down, all the rats must find new homes. If I send a note that electricity is essential for health the power will stay on. So may it be. I wonder, though, were there rats in that stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born? Imagine the Son of God born, not only in humility with donkey and sheep, but in fear and vulnerability with mice and rats as well. “Be born again,” He said. Born again in humility and vulnerability, For unless you know his humility, his vulnerability against the darkness you will not know his power, his light Remember then, wherever is born a son or daughter of God there is created a piece of the light the light that has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it. The Kmer tongue sings a strange song. Thun and his wife speak no English. there is only a phrase book useful phrases. the dialog begins. She points to a word, “pain” She points to her stomach and writes two dates with an arrow between, July 23 - November 7. I find a word - “baby” She shakes her head and finds a word, “dead” and she points to July 23. The she concludes with two words on her own, “Cambodia hard.” July 23 day of escape from Cambodia the full story remained untold. Cambodia hard Washington hard, too. Life hard. Words from Rachael Greenlee a patient and mother of her church come to mind. “God never puts on a person more than she can bear.” God’s creature man, God’s creature woman, well you know that life is hard. Know too that you have been created with a spirit that cannot be defeated by the powers of darkness and death. Someone close to you will die by the 15th. Her name her name is her name is Sarah. The root doctor’s words sent a chill from his crude shack deep in the North Carolina woods to the little clinic on Ninth Street, Washington, DC, USA, 1980. The darkness of doubt is deep darkness. Christ said, “Let not your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in me.” Is it so hard for a son or daughter of God to trust? For one who has been through the storm before who has known the trial who has known how to be in want who has been afraid, come these words: “God stood by me, even when I had no faith. So, too, He stands by me now.” Christ in you the hope of glory. Christ in you, born in darkness, the light of the world.
From people like Etty Hillesum and Teilhard, and surely from my own life, I have come to know how true it is that the light that come into the world in Christ, at Christmas, shines ever more brightly in the darkness. That all the goodness and joy and peace of Christmas glow every more bright as it is immersed in the darkness that so permeates the world around us (if not the world within us as well).
As we walk these days with Jesus the road that goes from Christmas through Calgary, what might we discover about the nature of the light that shines in the darkness? Thinking of Calgary, I am reminded of something Reverend Alan Jones said at a Tenebrae service at the Cathedral a few years ago; Listen to what he said:
“Without arms or charm of culture persons of no importance from an unimportant province, we seek to do as the Spirit bids - We go forth into a joyless world of swords and rhetoric to bring it joy.”
As we walk these days with Jesus the road that goes from Christmas through Calgary, grab your piece of the light along with a few Christmas cookies and let’s go. Let’s go into whatever dark corner of the world has our name on it. Perhaps like the moss called Goblin’s gold, we will find a sparkle of the light of Christ already there. And in that dark corner, let us let the light of Christ burn in us ever more brightly. Let us truly shine like stars in this dark world.
Jim Hall December 29, 2014