A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC December 24, 2018, Christmas Eve.
Texts: Isaiah 9:1-7, Luke 1 & 2 (selected verses), John 1:1-4
There’s something primal about candlelight. Over the past weeks, during my early morning prayer and writing times in my study—well before sunrise—I’ve lit one small candle and that little flame fills the whole room with a golden glow. It has struck me afresh, the beauty and power of this phenomenon. I imagine many would say that one of the most beloved moments every Christmas is to stand amidst hundreds of people holding candles in a darkened room; what makes this so wondrous and powerful? I think it taps into something fundamental in the human spirit, something passed on to us from our ancestors, a remembrance deep in our bones of a time before we could flip a switch to make light shine.
Years ago I read about a historian at Virginia Tech who’d made it his particular work to study the human experience of what he calls “preindustrial night.” He explains that in previous centuries, people called night a different “season.” Night was as different and separate from day as a winter in Greenland is from summer in the south. “During those centuries when people relied on sources such as torches, hearth fires and candles for illumination, night assumed a different character in the human imagination. The hours of fear descended every night, when one could easily lose one’s life by falling into ditches, ponds or rivers, or being thrown by horses unfamiliar with dark paths. Demons, witches and night hags, it was widely believed held sway in those hours. Ruffians and robbers could wreak their havoc…”[i] With the invention of the light bulb, our experience of night has changed. “Today,” says this scholar, “our darkness is neither so impenetrable nor so spooky.”
It’s true that many of us may have no experience of the kind of natural darkness that can occur—“preindustrial night” that offers no light switch and leaves us in a situation of deep vulnerability. But we know other kinds of shadows in our world, shadows that leave us vulnerable and feeling powerless. These are the shadows and gathering darkness that coalesce against God’s love and compassion, that would reject God’s way of justice, that hoards and hates and does violence to others and to our tender earth. All that is counter to God’s wisdom and way are shadows that do harm and stir our worst fears. And just as it was at the time of Jesus’ birth, so it is now: some who try hardest to be religious get caught up in stoking the shadows instead of being bearers of light.
I never cease to note the irony in the fact that while God has consistently spoken words of peace, compassion, mercy, and justice within all the world’s religions, perversions of religious ideas have so often done violence in the name of God. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, says, “For God to come near us is for God to risk God’s own integrity, in the sense that God puts himself into our hands to be appallingly misunderstood, to become the justifier of our hatred and fears, our madness…Revelation itself, as the church’s history shows, is bound up with tragic possibilities.”[ii]
When we hold the Christ-child in our arms, we carry a great responsibility—it is up to us to try our best not to “appallingly misunderstand” this wonderful gift.
From the beginning, God has called God’s people to be light to the nations, to shine so brightly in knowledge and love of God that all nations will stream into the presence of God and be brought together into unity. But division and war, jealousy and self-righteousness, exclusivity and hatred continue. The prophetic insistence on mercy, justice, care for the vulnerable, and food for the hungry—these things have been ignored again and again in favor of the more comfortable religious observances—and hypocrisy, religious violence, greed, and desire for worldly power persist…
But God so loves the world that Jesus comes into the world to show us in person how to be light for the world, to dispel the darkness, and to bring liberation from fear. The story goes that Jesus was born in poverty to a family who became targets of state violence and fled for their lives as refugees; they sought and found asylum in a foreign land. The child Jesus grew in love and grace, familiar with human struggle from birth, but grounded in the stories of God’s promises through the love and guidance of his parents and teachers. After wrestling with the Tempter in a wilderness place, Jesus embarked on his brief ministry in full solidarity with the poor and outcast, bringing hope, healing, mercy, compassion, and justice to the people shrouded in darkness and despair. Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah—“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…on them light has shined…”
And Jesus—the one we call the Light of the world—gathered a people to himself and said, “YOU are the light of the world.” (Mt. 5:14) // We look upon the light of the baby Jesus, radiating like a tiny flame at the center of our story tonight, and that light shines back upon us, illuminating our own faces, our image—the image of God that is upon each and every one of us.
Part of our ritual every Christmas Eve is to light what we call the “Christ candle,” the center candle in the Advent wreath. That candle is the source of light for all our individual candles. Just as we receive the flame from the Christ candle tonight, we receive the light of God’s love and mercy so that we ourselves might be light for others. I’m reminded of the beautiful prayer I heard for the first time several years ago when sharing Shabbat with my friends David and Beth. The weekly Shabbat prayer ends this way, “Light kindled…is a reminder. It reminds us that a solitary flame can light up darkness, that hope can be kindled even in despair, that we can wrest light from darkness. May my life be strengthened by hope. May my life be warmed by the divine light of compassion; may my life with others reflect that light.” We, you and I, are created to shine the light of God’s love, compassion, mercy, and justice in the world.
As we hold the Christ in our arms and in our hearts, I pray that we don’t “appallingly misunderstand.” And because I know my own frailty and capacity to get it wrong, because I know we need help every minute, I pray for Emmanuel to come to us:
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thy justice here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.[iii]
Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
Rejoice! The light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it.
[i] Homiletics, November-December 2005, p. 65.
[ii] Rowan Williams, “The Touch of God,” in A Ray of Darkness, Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Pub., 1995, p. 96.
[iii] The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 211.