Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Light & Doing

Light is so plain yet so elusive in its source. We have to be content to love it in its captured forms. This is the season of that capturing: in candles, in the warm glow of fireplaces, in electrical glows, and in Jesus’ coming...” (Author unknown) 

The most obvious source of light for us in the sun. Most of us have experienced the sun’s miracles. Shivering, we seek its warmth. Because of its rays houseplants turn green and healthy; pale linens grow whiter. We dry and preserve fruits in the sun; we heat homes, buildings, and whole communities with solar energy. No wonder that for centuries the sun has intrigued humans, and often even become an object of their worship. The sun’s light and warmth are natural symbols of God’s enlightening and comforting presence.

Scripture mentions light in many places. The people of the Bible generally used oil lamps as their primary source of light. These lamps were shallow bowls with one edge pinched together to form a trough which held a wick. Even the poorest home kept a lamp burning, day and night. It signified that there was life within the house; the absence of light indicated possible trouble.

In later centuries the candle became a traditional source of light. Most frequently today candles remind us of birthdays. Perhaps some of our most vivid and treasured memories center around times when a birthday cake, covered with candles, is carried into the midst of those gathered. A hush falls over those surrounding the birthday person, and little children, mesmerized by the light, are often eager to blow out the candles as if they feel it’s his or her own birthday.

In Christian tradition, whenever the community comes together to celebrate the Lord’s presence in word and sacrament, lighted candles are used to symbolize that presence and the new possibilities which Jesus holds out to us. The dancing flames remind us, too, of God’s Holy Spirit, continually igniting fresh hope within us. Through the four weeks of Advent prior to Christmas, both in our churches and in many of our homes, we’ve burned the four candles of the Advent wreath to symbolize the longing and expectation of humankind, from the first man and woman created right down to the newest-born infant among us. On this holy feast of Christmas the candles are another visible reminder that, indeed, Jesus the Christ has come among us and will come again.

Each year’s celebration of Christ’s becoming human, and each reading of the prologue to John’s Gospel (Chapter 1:1-14) holds out to us a new awareness of what Jesus can mean for us, and new insight as to how you and I might live for others in the New Year in the light of his example of love.

On this Christmas day you and I might look at our own life, with today’s Gospel reading as a backdrop, as a candle. A candle’s flame, in the drafts and air currents, will often reach out to the shadows, even overreach itself sometimes, and extinguish itself completely. That’s so very much like you and me: when we overreach our abilities, when we try to be the all-encompassing light ourselves, through pride, through a know-it-all attitude, through our attempts to solve every one else’s problems, through accomplishments and wealth, through workaholism, through our inability to be bothered with others’ needs, especially those “different” from us. St. John reminds us today: “He [John the Forerunner] was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.

A candle can’t re-light itself: it depends on someone outside itself to rekindle the light and the warmth. Only Jesus can rekindle the light of God’s caring presence, compassion and realness in our lives. “In him was life, and the life was the light of humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” You and I are sent to help rekindle Christ’s light in others’ lives gone dark with sickness, need, oppression or depression, and lack of love. Sometimes we need not look very far away: to someone, perhaps, in our immediate family or among our close acquaintances. In the first reading Isaiah  the prophet (52:7-10) says that we’re to bring “good tidings”, that we’re to proclaim peace and salvation.  That is “Good News” -- Gospel -- not something, but a living, caring person: Jesus the Light. 

My former wife’s grandfather, Kenneth Bolt, who lived into his 90’s, was a remarkable and astute man. While not aligned with any church community, he had his own deep religious convictions. In a Christmas note he once wrote: “So many times in life there are opportunities to do for others -- in the same way you would have them do for you. But there is more than just the doing of the doing that you do; it’s the way you do the doing...” 

His comment reminded me of a story made popular by the late Paul Harvey, a noted radio commentator of many years ago, one which well exemplifies the way in which God “did the doing” for us. The story was about an unbelieving man on Christmas Eve. There’d been a ferocious winter storm in the village where he lived on a small farm. Temperatures had dipped dramatically, to the point where he noticed that the birds ran the risk of freezing to death. The man trudged out to the barn through the snow and turned on the light. After trudging back and watching for awhile, he noticed that none of the birds flew into the lighted barn. He trudged back out, putting down bread crumbs leading into the barn, hoping this might attract them. Still no results. He reflected for a long time on how he could get them to go into the barn. The thought finally came to him that about the only way they’d come in out of the cold was if somehow he could become as one of them and show them the way in...

Just at that moment, he heard in the crisp air the village church bells, ringing in the feast of Christ’s birth.  And he, now experiencing, as it were, the light of a monumental personal spiritual insight, fell to his knees, tears streaming down his face...

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our forbears by the prophets; but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son...” And you and I, sons and daughters of a loving God, who celebrate the birth of Jesus today: how will you and I speak and do to those who need us the most in the days and weeks of the New Year  ahead??

...there is more than just the doing of the doing that you do; it’s the way you do the doing...

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