Princeton University Religious Life

Light Up the World

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
December 24, 2013
Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 3:1-20

Seasons have come and gone; the earth has renewed itself and retired again, and we find ourselves here once more, on this silent night, this holy night.  Much has happened in each of our lives; we are the same people that we were last Christmas and yet we are not.  We have grown, sometimes through the lovely things that happen to us and sometimes through the challenges, the pain.  We have been reminded of – and perhaps experienced – the depths of human brutality, rage, and hatred, and the heights of human compassion, generosity, forgiveness and love.  May this holy night enflame in our hearts all that is merciful and faithful, enlarging our own capacity for hope, grace, justice, and love, for tonight we celebrate the birth of the Messiah.  As one of the ancient antiphons of the church proclaims, “Jesus Christ is the light of the world, a Light no darkness can extinguish.” Indeed, it is these shortest, darkest days of the year that Christianity knows as the Season of Light.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” writes the Prophet Isaiah, “those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”  Tonight, again, the greatest light comes to all in deep darkness.  Those who are depressed know about that – about walking in darkness.  So do all who live in conflict zones, or under occupation; so do the hungry, the refugees.  So do the grieving, the fearful, the overlooked, the discarded, the oppressed.  Christ lights the way during a dark night walk – a moonless walk.  The night journey may be hard, but it is not in vain.  Christ is leading us somewhere.  He is lighting the way towards blessing, and towards redemption from all that diminishes us.

What glorious, holy light is born this quiet evening!  It brings the end of warfare – this light ushers in the demise of violence and bloodshed.  “Hey Dean,” you may be thinking – “do you look at the news?  If you did you would notice that each day’s dispatches feature violence and bloodshed.” I do get it, gentle listener – I see it, too.  Shootings in schools, hospitals, places of work.  Bombs exploding in markets.  The news coverage, 24/7, is, as Isaiah might say, rolled in blood.  It is our present, but it is not our destiny.  We are on a dark, night journey, but he is leading us somewhere – Christ, the light of the world.  He will set alight all the weapons with which we extinguish each other’s lives.

Last month, this University had a massive bonfire a few hundred yards from this Chapel (it was in response to football victories).  Isaiah prophesies an infinitely bigger bonfire that consumes the boots of those tramping warriors, and all the garments of their victims, “rolled in blood.”  Those tramping warriors – well, they know all about them this evening in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, and every place of occupation or despotism.  And those garments rolled in blood – they know all about them this evening in Syria, Iraq, and every other embattled place.  Christians around the world celebrate Christ’s birth in the stench of bloodshed tonight.  Bodies on the street in the morning, when dawn’s light dispels the darkness, revealing the despicable things we do to one another under the cover of night.

But a bonfire will be lit!  The boots and the bloody clothes are its fuel.  What else shall we put on that fire?  What other things that destroy human lives shall we consign to the flames, flames that light up the night sky and testify to the birth in our bloody midst of the true light of the world?  Some of you may say, let’s put in the drones, they kill countless innocent people.  Others may add, “Let’s throw on the assault rifles, land mines, and nuclear-tipped warheads.”  What else destroys human beings?  How about drugs that enslave lovely people?  Watch the light grow!  What intangible things can we throw on this bonfire that maim, destroy, enslave?  How about our diseases, and our despair?  Toss them on!  How about our sins – all our meannesses, viciousness, dishonesty, vanity, envy, our denial of the goodness that is in us?  And let’s throw on our shame.  Wow – that was like adding rocket fuel to the fire – look at those flames leap!  Let’s now add our regrets – let’s permit the Light of the world to free us from them right now.  Let’s toss them on to that bonfire and start living a redeemed, liberated life now.  We can’t toss our regrets on to the fire fast enough – every word uttered in anger or jealousy, meant to hurt or disempower, every selfish instance, everything we’d take back if we possibly could.  Woah!  Now our bonfire reaches to the heavens, and the ascending light of our repentance meets the descending light of God’s grace.  Light upon light.  The people who have walked in darkness are redeemed at last.   We see a great light.

Our bonfire of redemption can be seen for miles.  Others in dark places say, “How did they do that?  What do they know?”  We know that we have set in purifying fire everything in us that is not of God.  We take what is not holy and turn it into a source of light, a testimony to the love and power of God, and of God’s son, the very light of the world.  Christ doesn’t make our problems go away, but he lights the way to their answer.

Christ lights the pathway before us, but he also kindles a fire within us.  Tonight we celebrate the incarnation – the “enfleshment” of God within a single, divine human little being, the Messiah.  And so – we remember that God’s lighting of a holy fire in this one human being made possible that same spark in all humans.  We are bearers of the light of the incarnation!  The light of Christ is in us, too, and even we have the power to light up the world!  Seven centuries ago a Christian mystic called Meister Eckhart said, “People think God has only become a human being there – in [God’s] historical transformation – but that is not so; for God is here – in this very place – just as much incarnate in a human being long ago.  And this is why God has become a human being: that God might give birth to you as the only begotten [child], and no less.”

How about that!  We have the very light of God within us!  On this holy night, when we celebrate the birth of the Messiah, we remember too that God’s light entered the whole human family through that tiny baby – immiserated, cold, and vulnerable.  Through that most humble of human portals God chose to enter the souls of all humanity, even you and even me.  The incarnation, as Eckhart says, transformed an illegitimate infant in ancient Palestine, as it transforms the lives of you and me.

That same homeless baby of Bethlehem, the Messiah, knew this his whole life long.  As my old minister liked to say of the Sermon on the Mount, “Jesus looked out over a very regular group of people and said, ‘You are the light of the world.’”  Jesus didn’t just say, “Hey, I am the light of the world,” he spent his lifetime saying, You are” – the day laborers and the academics, the struggling families, the undocumented, those who disappoint, the wildly successful, the regular, the “cheesemakers” of the Monty Python sketch on the same biblical scenario.  Blessed are all of us, for as Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” You are, we are, Christ knew it and taught us so.

“Well?!”  You might be thinking.  What does that mean?  On this Christmas Eve and always, I believe that the knowledge that the light of God exists in us, too, is meant to give us faith and empowerment.  The angel tells those lowly, lonely shepherds, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  To them – to us – to us is born a savior, not just “out there” in history but within our very spirits, if we will let him in.  The Light of the world is incarnated within us, too, if we will let him in, to make us – even us – in whatever place we find ourselves – the very light of the world!

“Light up the world!” he says to us – let’s set this world on fire.  Let’s light bonfires all over the place.  Let’s invite people to set on fire all within and without themselves that is not “of God”; let’s invite people to know themselves to be the light of the world, simply because they are beloved of God.  What could we do together because we know we are God’s beloved – because we know we are the light of the world?

The advent of God’s light – God’s incarnational presence in the human family – it takes place so quietly, so unexpectedly, in so marginalized a setting as a refugee family, poor, displaced, the baby is even illegitimate by human standards.  Into the profoundest depths of human marginalization is born the light of the world – in the infant Messiah, and in you and me.  No wonder Mary pondered all these things in her heart – she had a lot to ponder!  Not just a miraculous pregnancy but a squirming, grimacing infant who was born, through her, to effect the salvation of the universe: the light of the world!

That baby grew up to tell us that we are the light of the world!  Let us live with that well.  Thomas Aquinas described it like this: “The incarnation accomplished the following: that God became human and that humans became God and sharers in the divine nature.” We do have light to share with this world!

So, let us light up the world!  There are bonfires to be lit, not for football victories, but because, this night, in the City of David, a savior is born for us, the Messiah.  In him, and in us too, he said, is the light of the world.  Humanity’s viciousness one towards the other is no match for the light he brings and that he kindles within us.  All that separates us from God is destined to be burned, fuel for the fire.  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  There shall be endless peace; he will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.  Thanks be to God for the gift of our salvation, born on this silent night, this holy night!

Amen.


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