What did you get for Christmas? Did you get what you wanted? Was it what you really wanted? It's a question that evolves through our lives, from the colorful toy of early childhood, to the electronic gadgets and gift cards of young adulthood, to the intangible gifts of reconciliation or family reunions of maturity.
When I was a little girl I was always happy if I opened my stocking early on Christmas morning to find a new flashlight. For a child, there's something marvelous and almost magical about a flashlight: you can banish monstrous shadows from the corners of your room; you can read under the bedclothes; you can venture into the coat closet or point a searchlight to the stars out of your bedroom window. A flashlight doesn't make the darkness go away completely, but it makes it seem a bit safer, until the sun rises and the shadows disperse.
The prologue to John's Gospel gives us, not just an introduction to the Gospel but a summary of the whole story too. It begins at the beginning, RIGHT at the beginning, echoing Genesis with its "In the beginning" and with the theme of light as the first order of creation, the first WORD spoken. By taking us right back to the beginning, the Gospel writer helps us to understand that Jesus in some way embodies that divine Word, which was with God and in God and a part of God before anything at all came into being.
All things came into being through him. Without the Word, nothing would have been created. Without Jesus, the Word made flesh, we creatures are not truly alive. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. In the life of Jesus we see a great light - the light of all people - and this light lights the way for us to life that is true and eternal, life in the light of God, promised to everyone. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn't overcome it, doesn't extinguish it, doesn't win.
It's not that the darkness isn't there: like the flashlight in my Christmas stocking, the light shines into the darkness, making it less scary and offering us hope that the darkness will ultimately be banished.
At this time of year I really notice the darkness. The days are short, even this far south. In Scotland, where my siblings live, it never really gets fully light at the end of December. Light is inevitably an important symbol for winter celebrations, whether we are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa. We put lights on our Christmas trees and lights in the windows, we wear sparkly jewelry and sweaters, we sing carols about stars guiding wise men to Bethlehem. The commercial frenzy is all part of a frantic effort to keep the darkness at bay, to pretend it isn't out there, that there are no shadows in the corners of our lives.
But for many of us, Christmas is a time when the darkness seems even thicker and more threatening than usual. Some of us are in the valley of the shadow, grieving for a loved one or the end of a relationship. Some of us are walking through the darkness of cancer, HIV/AIDS, or chronic pain. Some of us are living in fear for ourselves or for someone on active duty abroad or living in a country at war. There's the darkness of despair for those who are alone, or unemployed, or deep in debt; the darkness of mental illness, addiction or homelessness. When I was at seminary I had a neighbor who couldn't bear to celebrate Christmas because one of her children died at Christmas time. When the darkness is all around, it's hard to accept that there is anything worth celebrating at all.
Let me ask again: what did you really want for Christmas? When you think about all the darkness in the world, wouldn't you ask for light to come into those lives, or peace on earth, for a cure for cancer or a world where justice is impartial?
Yet, there is much to celebrate at Christmas. God has come to us: the Creator has offered us the incredible gift of an only son, God's own self squeezed into the unimpressive form of a human being, born into poverty as a member of an oppressed race in an occupied country; born for our sake, to redeem us from the ultimate darkness of death and sin. As St. Paul tells us, Jesus has made us free, free to receive the gift, free to choose life instead of death, love instead of fear, compassion instead of isolation.
I remember the cosy, safe feeling I had as a child when I snuggled right under the covers, head and all, in the dark nest of my bed. That was a friendly darkness, even before I switched on my precious new flashlight, because it shut out the bigger, scarier darkness on the other side of the bedclothes. I could pretend that the real darkness wasn't there. But, without the darkness, we wouldn't know how important the light is. Without the darkness, we wouldn't know how much we need the light of Christ to come into the world and light the way for us back to life and love.
When we lit up the Cathedral at the beginning of December, people passing by talked about how they had never noticed the building before, or even if they knew it well had never noticed how beautiful it was or felt inclined to come in. The lights made our church noticeable and gave people traveling through our neighborhood a sense that here is a destination worth visiting. The light show wouldn't have been impressive at all if we had done it for a daytime event: we needed the darkness of the December Nights to make the light stand out.
When God created light, the darkness wasn't eliminated. The darkness remains, but the light stands fast, pushing back the darkness and never allowing it to prevail. And we play a part in shining the light out into the darkness. When we reach out to our neighbors, the light shines. When we refuse to participate in bigotry or injustice, the light shines. When we give voice to the plight of the voiceless, the light shines. The lights of the Cathedral stand as a symbol for the light of Christ, shining out in this city, standing fast against hatred and despair.
As we prepare for the new year ahead, my prayer is that this community will be a beacon of light for San Diego, that we will shine out ever more strongly, pushing the darkness ever further back, speaking out for justice and compassion. Because that's what the world wants for Christmas, what the world needs in 2015, a light to light the way through the darkness to the bright glory of life in its fullness.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the world received that light, and each Christmas we receive it again. It's our joyful task to bear the light into the world and let it shine out, sharing the good news of Christ, the light of the world, who shines still today despite the darkness and who will never be overcome.
Alleluia, unto us a child is born. O come let us adore him, Alleluia.
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges
December 28, 2014