Sunday, December 25, 2022

The Light of Christmas


Christmas Eve

Episcopal seminarians are required to spend a summer serving as a hospital chaplain.  I did this at St. Elizabeth’s, a massive mental health campus in Washington DC, housing and treating literally thousands of patients.  In my ten weeks there I saw more suffering, loneliness, and despair than I had in my first 25 years of life. 

But I also experienced firsthand something of the unquenchable spirit of the human soul.  I remember sitting with two elderly ladies who were participating in an art therapy program.  They were painting, such has their abilities allowed.  One lady created a dark, wintery landscape with something resembling a house at the center of the canvass.  It had a stone-cold appearance, as if no one had lived there for decades. 

The other woman surveyed the bleak scene and pondered.  After a few moments, she dipped her brush in some yellow paint, leaned over, and with a quick stroke put a tiny light in one of the windows of that desolate looking house.  That one golden dot transformed the entire painting into a vision of hospitality and warmth.  It was a breath-taking statement.  I instantly thought of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote, “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.”

It also provides a colorful image for a verse from Isaiah we heard just moments ago:

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light;

    those who lived in a land of deep darkness--

    on them light has shined.

Tonight we celebrate God loves us enough to send light into the darkness of our lives and times.  Through the gift of the babe born in Bethlehem the entire canvas of our world has been transformed.

When she preached at the community prayer service held in Chesapeake after the Wal-Mart shootings, Bishop Susan talked about dark times.  And then, as we all held lighted candles, she said our presence in the church on Thanksgiving eve was an act of light protesting the darkness of the moment.  And she noted darkness loses its power when even a single light is present.  It is a theme she shared again in her Christmas message to the diocese.

The Gospel writer John proclaims this:

What has come into being in Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This past Wednesday, on the shortest day of the year, several of us gathered in worship to acknowledged the darkness in our lives and in our world.  But we did more than name it in all its crushing manifestations, we lit candles as symbols of hope and resilience – resilience in that, through God’s grace, the darkness has not overcome us and hope for a day when all our hurts will be healed and our losses will be restored. 

After we receive communion this evening we will return to a tradition we haven’t experienced since the beginning of the pandemic.  We will light candles and sing Silent Night.  Just as God’s only begotten Son brought light into the world, so too our lighting begins with a single flame.  The light only grows as it is received by each one of you and then passed on to another, just as God’s love must be received and passed on if we are going to dispel the darkness of this world. 

I’ve told you before how during a particularly dark period in my life I prayed each day for daily bread – a single moment in the day to remind me there is light in the world and in my life.  And every day I found it, most likely because I was so desperately looking for it and expecting it.  I remember vividly one day’s bread.  I was standing in line at a grocery store (which, in my experience can be a very spiritual place if you are not in a hurry).  A mother was unloading her cart while her small child sat in its seat facing toward me.  The boy looked up at me, smiled, and waved.  I smiled and waved back.  For whatever reason I was heartened.  It was so nice to be noticed.  Why is it twenty years later I remember this exchange and still find it to be one of the most powerful experiences in my life?  Moments of daily bread may not be dramatic, but they are filling.  They transform our day just as the tiny dot of yellow transformed the painting of the dreary house.

Most artwork depicting the Nativity shares something in common.  The light on the faces of those gathered around the manager emanates from where the baby Jesus lays.  He is the source of light in the dark stable…. just as he is the source of light in our lives and in our world.  It is this light we celebrate tonight.  It is this light for which we give thanks.  And it is this light we are called to share.