A Light Revealed in the Darkness
Imagine growing up and living your whole life in a desert. How incredible, how amazing, how impossible would a rainforest seem to you? Or, imagine living in the tundra, well north of the arctic circle, your whole life. How incredible, how amazing, how impossible would downtown Manhattan be? Imaging living your whole life in darkness, in the abyss, in the emptiness. How incredible, how amazing, how impossible would even the tiniest flickering light be?
In our Gospel passage this morning, we hear from a man who knows a lot about darkness and the abyss. Simeon was an old man who had lived through his own sufferings and disappointments. And as a Jew, he was a member of a people who had faced deep darkness and emptiness for century after century: first, an invasion that swept away ⅘ of the people, then the capitol sacked and their temple burned down. In the centuries that followed, even as they rebuilt, they were conquered and occupied by a series of foreign invaders. Simeon himself has lived his whole life under Roman occupation. Simeon knows about darkness.
And yet when he sees Jesus in the temple, he bursts out in a spontaneous song of praise and joy:
“Lord, you now have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised; for these eyes of mine have seen the savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel”. [Luke 2:29-32]
Now this short set of verses might sound familiar. If you’ve ever attended Evensong here, or you’ve ever celebrated Evening Prayer, you have heard this sung, or you’ve recited it yourself. This passage (we call it a “canticle”, a song that is a quotation from Scripture)—along with Mary’s Magnificat, which we heard last week—is appointed to be said or sung everytime Episcopalians gather for Evening Prayer. And there’s a reason for that. This short little song or poem really summarizes Christianity.
Even in the midst of all the darkness of Simeon’s life, the darkness of so many generations, in this little child—Jesus was barely eight days old—Simeon sees the work of God revealed. In Jesus, he sees a light shining in the darkness. It may be a young, small, frail, flickering light, but it’s a light nonetheless.
This is, then, what Christmas is all about. It is a moment of revelation. It shows us that even in the darkness of this life, God is always present, always striving to enlighten our lives. But Christmas says more than this. After this spontaneous song, Simeon continues to speak. And he says that Jesus is a “sign that will be opposed” to reveal the inner thoughts of many people. So Christmas reveals something about God: God’s love is a light that keeps shining in the darkness. But Christmas also reveals something about us and our world: the darkness, the abyss, the emptiness is pushing back against the light, trying to drown it.
Now, the author of The Letter to the Hebrews is also interested in how God is revealing Godself and God’s work to the world. In this opening of the letter, the author is actually quoting many passages of Hebrew Scripture. The last section of it, at the end our passage for today, the letter quotes from Psalm 102:
“In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.” [Hebrews 1:10-12; compare Psalm 102:25-27]
Much like Simeon, this author is talking about the tension that lies at the heart of God’s relationship to the universe. On the one hand, the cosmos is God’s beloved creation: the “work of [God’s] hands” which God “founded”. Yet, on the other hand, we are told that the world might need to be changed, like old clothing. Whenever I hear this passage, I always imagine the clothing might be kind of dirty, and has some holes in it. So it needs some cleaning and maybe some mending.
This language about the world being “rolled up” like an old cloak, though, has deeper connotations. I think it’s hard to hear this passage and not think of the Apocalypse. Now, in modern English, this word “apocalypse” has deeply negative associations. We tend to think of nuclear war, of fire and brimstone raining down, when we hear this word. But the original Greek term translates a something like “unveiling” or “uncovering”—so the Apocalypse is really a revelation.
If this is right, then Christmas is truly an apocalypse! In Christmas, God reveals Godself and also forces us to see ourselves and our world more clearly. God uncovers and reveals what is really true but has been hidden or obscured. I think such a dramatic revelation is necessary because we humans have a tendency to take whatever we see at face value. We take the status quo for granted, as the obvious and incontestable truth. Hatred, violence, despair, and suffering are obvious, and we take them for granted as the way things have to be. They seem normal—just like the desert or the tundra seems normal to those who live there, the darkness, the abyss, the emptiness we see all around us seems normal and unavoidable.
But in Jesus, God reveals that this seeming normality is anything but! In Jesus, strange things happen: an infant has power, love defeats death, compassion begins to heal all brokenness. In Jesus, the dark and empty “normal” starts to melt around this small, flickering light.
In this little infant, we see the promise of God—and how much we and our world oppose this small healing presence. The Gospel of Matthew tells a story about Herod murdering children to avoid a challenger to his authority; and we know that in a few decades, another ruler named Pontius Pilate will also do what he can to extinguish this flame. . .
All of this unveiling, this uncovering, this revelation teaches us, I think, about faith. Now, my guess is that for some folks at St. Mark’s, “faith” is a four-letter word. And it’s true that people too often invoke faith to call for unthinking obedience, uncritical thinking, or emotional attachment without reflection. But while faith in God, faith in Jesus, certainly has a mental and emotional aspect, if we pay attention to the way that Scripture talks about faith, it is talking about something much deeper. If we listen to the prophets or to Paul as they tell us about faith, they are really talking more about action than about belief. For them, faith is, in the final analysis, committed action.
Believing in Jesus means acting as if Jesus really is the Messiah, following his way of life and committing to his values. If one does this, one has faith in Jesus—even if one isn’t really all that sure what they think or feel about him! Meanwhile, even if someone talks about Jesus, studies the Bible, and says they have a personal relationship with Jesus in their heart, if they don’t commit in action to living the life Jesus calls for, their faith is superficial at best.
This is crucial, because the way of life Jesus calls us to really is a radical one. I’ve tried to sum up Christianity before, and I often find myself saying this: For the Christian, the way things are supposed to be is more real than how they happen to be right now. Put another way: the Christian thinks the tiny light is more real than the massive, dark abyss.
This is, I think, what is revealed in Christmas. And so the question for us today is: can we really follow this tiny, flickering light? Can we resist the dark emptiness? Can we follow this little infant who we know will one day die?
Such a path, such a way of life, seems hopelessly naive, ridiculous, foolish, nonsensical—unless Christmas really does reveal the truth!