Light and life. Christmas 2019
Life and light. After weeks of a deepening darkness, light has finally come. The light is returning, little by little, as our days now extend just a little bit longer with each trip around the sun. The darkness served its purpose. The deepening darkness of the Advent season just past helped us see the new life born this night, through the light it brings. It is a life that lights up the world.
Tonight we celebrate the coming of Jesus, God with us, into human life. In our songs and in our prayers, we hear the story of a journey to Bethlehem and Jesus’ birth in a manger, of angels and shepherds and bright stars in the night sky. For these few minutes, we reflect on something of the meaning of it all, leaning on the opening words from the Gospel of John and its cosmic view. Clearly echoing another beginning, way back in the book of Genesis, our poet starts: “In the beginning… was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… What has come into being in him was life, and that life was the light of all people.” Light and life. What is this life that brings light, of which our biblical poet speaks?
Over the years, much has been made about believing in God, believing in Jesus, believing the unbelievable, believing miracles that defy scientific explanation, as the sum total of Christian faith. Still in some quarters, intellectual assent to propositional truth… a check list of “I believe’s”, or the rejection of them, is the litmus test of faith. The opening of the Gospel of John rejects such an approach, like the book of Genesis before it, based largely on language that it is more poetry than prose, more deep truth than objective reality. Here at St. Andrew’s, we are shifting to such an approach with our embrace of storytelling more than object lessons for children in worship. Through stories and song, prayer and ritual, we learn right along with our youngest members, about a life of faith that is about more than belief… a life that lights up the world.
At the end of her famous 1992 poem “The Summer Day,” celebrated American poet Mary Oliver asked: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do; with your one wild and precious life?” Beloved by many, Oliver also knew much critique through her career with poems deemed too simple and too old-fashioned, because they were mostly about the timeless topics of nature, beauty and even God. Ernest, perhaps, but not sophisticated enough for many literary critics. And yet perhaps it is the simplicity and old-fashioned-ness of writing about a grasshopper and prayer and wild, precious lives, that struck such a cord with the multitudes, for decades.
The poem which ends with her most quoted couplet (“Tell me, what is it you plan to do; with your one wild and precious life?”), begins with another question: “Who made the world?” Oliver asks. It is a question the Gospel of John begins by answering. But different from our gospel poet’s cosmic view, Oliver turns to the small and the specific: “Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper?” Her view then becomes even more focused: “This grasshopper, I mean…” and she goes on to notice tiny details about the grasshopper in her hand. It is from this tiny, micro view, that her deep, cosmic reflections spring: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down; into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass; how to be idle and blessed, and stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do; with your one wild and precious life?” It is another way of wondering: How does your life light up the world?
As John goes on to describe Christ as the life that lights up the world, in the beginning, we also hear about something more, something other, than belief as the end of faith. “… To all who received him,” John goes on, “who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” Maybe in the life that lights up the world… in that one wild and precious life… the message of Christmas is that when God became a human child, God gave us humans “… power to become children of God…”
Many people… many Christians in particular, quickly get twitchy when the topic of power is raised. The idea of having power is so terrifying that many quickly retreat into denial or the claim of powerlessness. We back away… “I couldn’t possibly…” The spiritualized version is to speak of “the power of God” in supernatural and abstract ways, far removed from our day-to-day lives, much less our choices, decisions and responsibilities. The Calgary Alliance for the Common Good, to which St. Andrew’s belongs, thinks of power differently. It’s main goal is “to organize the power of communities to shape a just and compassionate city.” The idea is to engage the power of each individual, each wild and precious life, each child of God… and each member organization, to join together and take action on issues that matter to all of us. The idea is to engage power-with, rather than power-over; to use power collaboratively, rather than competitively; and to thereby build the “power that comes when people begin to work together…” It is about bringing light to the darkness of mental illness, racism, isolation and environmental degradation. It is about shining the light of our lives, together, into the darkness, so the darkness will not overcome us.
A stance of powerlessness means we can’t… we won’t… do anything about injustice or social problems or much of anything at all. To believe, though… to believe that God entered human life in the birth of Jesus, on this very night, is to be gifted with power to become a child of God. The only question then, is how we claim this life God has for us… in our personally lives and our life together as the people of God, working for the good of all. What are you doing with the power God has given you? What are you doing with the life in which God is with you? For “what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…” Life that lights up the world is ours this night, through the birth of Jesus. So “Tell me, what is it you plan to do; with your one wild and precious life?”
You can look down to nature… to the details of animal behaviour or the petals of a flower. You can look up to the cosmos… to the grandeur of stars and the movement of the planets. You can look back… to the stories of our sacred history throughout centuries, or your own lifetime. You can look inward… to the movement of God’s spirit gently or dramatically guiding you through your life. You can look into the face of a baby, small and vulnerable and beautiful. Whichever way you look this night… may you see God, glimpse the purpose of your one wild and precious life, and embrace a life that lights up the world.