Friday, December 27, 2013

Sermon: Christmas Eve: Pondering Light In The Darkness

Sermon for Christmas Eve, Year A
St. Philip’s In The Hills, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse, Dec. 24, 2013
Candlelight Service 7:00pm
Gospel text Luke 2:1-20
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

Merry Christmas! It is good to be with you this evening to celebrate the mysterious birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

The opening lines of John O’Donohue’s book Anam Cara,[1] 
offer a fresh perspective on being human. He writes,
“It is strange to be here.
The mystery never leaves you alone.
Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits.”
It is strange to be here, when you think about it.

At the heart of Christmas, the incarnation of God is strange.
We celebrate no ordinary birth, no ordinary child.
Jesus is the light of the world,
the fullness of God made visible in human life. 
This is, indeed, a mystery worth pondering.
The silence of another world waits.

The familiar Gospel contains a mystery
that never leaves us alone. 
It was not so ordinary for Mary, who,
“…treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”  
She pondered.

In Greek, word ponder, “soom-bal’-lo,”
means “to throw together,” or “to combine.”

If Mary was on Facebook, her “00 Year In Review”
would throw together these images and posts
from a very out-of-the-ordinary year in her life:

·        Receiving Angel Gabriel’s message she will bear a son,
·        Seeing Elizabeth’s expressive joy that she is pregnant,
·        Feeling the societal stigma of a young, engaged girl becoming pregnant before marriage,
·        Traveling to Bethlehem with her fiance’,
·        Giving birth to her son in a stable,
·        Hearing the exuberance of the shepherds as they, too received an angelic message to come and see.

Mary had a lot going on.  It was not an ordinary year.
She wished for time to fathom the meaning of it all.
Mary “treasured” the extraordinary circumstances,
as all mothers do. 

Mothers never forget any what happens with their children.
Mothers hold in their heart everything the child does,
or suffers, or is said about them.
Mothers think about these things. 
Mothers anxiously try to find out what it all means
for the future of her child.
Mary, like all mothers, treasured the words and pondered.

This Christmas, we do not forget what has happened
in our last year, our extraordinary circumstances. 
Mary invites us to treasure the lives we are birthing,
what we suffer and what it means for our future,
through the lens of this evening’s not-so-ordinary birth.

Mary invites us to ponder the metaphorical meaning,
the sacred and symbolic importance of light in the darkness.
The good news announced in today’s scripture is this:
to us is born this day a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. 

Personally, we ponder the seeming darkness.
We ponder our losses, our loneliness, our longing for change.
We ponder the darkness, and yet
God calls us here tonight to let the light of Jesus
seep into those dark cracks in our individual lives. 
Jesus’ light offers a heavenly peace
that is beyond our understanding.

Meister Eckhart said,
“Christmas is the birth of Christ within us
through the union of God’s spirit with our flesh.”[2]

We are birthing, tonight,
the light that heals us from dis-ease of fear,
the light that delivers us from bondage of selfishness,
the light that returns us from exile from loneliness.
Indeed, we proclaim this in our closing hymn,
“O little town of Bethlehem,” in which the last verse reads
“o holy child of Bethlehem, be born in us, today.”

Communally, we ponder the seeming darkness of our society. 
We ponder society’s voracious hunger for violence,
rapt attention to consumerism,
dependence on power to solve problems of the world,
just as Rome shaped Jesus’ world. 
We ponder this darkness and yet
God calls us to let the light of Jesus guide our community,
like the outcast shepherds,
to believe the peace of another world is possible.
of peace through justice,
of peace through simplicity,
of peace through compassion,
of peace through gentleness,
of peace through humility.

Personally and communally,
we experience the light of Christ by collaborating with God
to make the world a better place.
St. Augustine said,
“God without us will not, and we without God cannot.” 

Do not be afraid, the angel says.
Jesus is the light in the darkness, so follow that light, \and in so doing, we share the light with others.

The National Gallery of London retains a fantastic and
evocative image of light in the darkness called,
“The Nativity At Night.”[3]
The 15 Century painting portrays the dark winter night,
cold and without stars, lit only by glow of the newborn baby. 

The composition[4] of Nativity at Night shows
·        a brilliant baby Jesus in the center, glowing radiantly outward from his manger-crib. 
·        Young Mary kneels on the right, her face shining and her posture reverently kneeling before the manger-crib.
·        Joseph stands behind her, in the shade of the stable.
·        Several angels kneel on the left, their faces,
bathed in divine light, peer into the manger and their hands express child-like wonder. 
·        The doe-eyed ox and donkey faintly appear and look on with curiosity.
·        A tiny, bright angel zooms across the sky
like a shooting star, carrying the light of Christ
to the terrified shepherds in the distance,
who encircle a campfire to keep watch over their flock. 
·        The shepherds raise their arms in panic and in praise.
Their response, begun in worship,
moves out towards the deep darkness of the world
as they share the light they experience.

The inspiration of this piece,
St. Brigid’s vision of the luminous miracle,
describes Mary’s response to the birth in this way,
“…When the virgin felt she had already born her child,
she worshipped him, her head bent down
and her hands clasped with great honor and reverence
and said to him, “be welcome, my God, my Lord and my son.”

Indeed, “The Nativity at Night” expresses
profound theological truths.
The light of Jesus does more than point to his transcendence,
the light draws the viewer into the scene and
asks of us a response. 

The moment I saw this image in my coffee-table book,[5]
I ran to tell my friends about it. 
I was compelled to show it to several others,
expressing the joy and the relief and the mystery. 

That is the impulse of Christmas –
To tell out loud that the light has come.
To see the light in the mystery of our neighbor. 
To live into the words of the adult Jesus
“whoever follows me will never walk in darkness
but will have the light of life.”

Tonight, the source of peace, God’s word of wisdom,
has been made human, as hope incarnate. 
It is strange to be here. The mystery never leaves us.

For Jesus the Christ lives, moves
and has his being in our world and
the world lives, moves
and has its being in Christ. 
And nothing will be the same. 

As we ponder all these things – as we soom-bal’-lo – we can only respond

Glory to God on High and
Peace to God’s People on Earth!

[1] John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, (New York, HarperCollins, 1997) page xv
[2] Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth, (New York, HarperOne, 1989) 237ff
[3] Summary information found at cited on December 20, 2013.
[4] Composition description inspired by The Rev. Dr. Grant Bayliss, University of Cambridge, at cited on December 20, 2013

[5] Susan A. Blain, Ed., Imaging the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource, Volume 2 (Cleveland, United Church Press, 1995) pages 96-99

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