The Promise of Light

What is your favorite thing about Christmas? The family gatherings, the big meals, the holiday shopping—yes, really, some people actually love it! Maybe you look forward to making—or eating–your family’s favorite treats—cookies and candies, fruitcakes and more. Or driving through the city at night, looking at the Christmas lights, feeling that sense of wonder and beauty and joy you felt when you were a child. And then being able to come home to your own tree, all lit up, warm and cozy and relaxing into that sense of Christmas peace.

There does seem to be something in the air at Christmastime, a feeling that the world turns with a little more goodwill than usual. We hear Christmas carols on the radio, people seem happier, there’s an ease and a sense of light about it all—even in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, even though we know the rancor and division still exists “out there” in our world. For a time the struggle is suspended, and a waiting kind of hope arrives. I think it has something to do with the fact that deep down, simply as human beings, we yearn for the revival of Love in our world. And we still believe it’s possible. For a few short weeks, peace on earth, goodwill to all is an overarching hope. Maybe it will happen this year after all, beginning first in our hearts, and then spreading throughout our meeting, and then out into the world. Each brightly lit Christmas bulb, each flickering candle lifts up that hope as the promise of God’s light.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the four-week celebration when we prepare our hearts, minds, and spirits for the birth of the Christ child. Historians are mixed in their opinions about when the Advent celebration began. Some place it near the year 500, starting in the medieval Roman Catholic church. Monks were expected to fast every day during the month of December to prepare themselves for the great joy that was coming. Somewhere along the way, as Advent spread to other traditions, the fasting was largely dropped and the Advent wreath was added. This morning we began meeting for worship with a responsive reading and Bob and Ruth lit the first candle, which represents Light. Over the next three Sundays, we’ll share readings and light candles also for Peace, Hope, and Love.

Advent is a time of preparation, inwardly and outwardly. We try intentionally to stay more aware of the light, spaciousness, and goodness God brings into our lives. We want our hearts to be ready for God, our minds quiet enough to hear and know God’s truth, our spirits yielded and humble as we let ourselves learn more about love and forgiveness and peace. Advent gives us the chance to turn down the volume of the world for a time as we create a place of gentle quiet—gentle thankful quiet—within. With a little practice, a little peace, we are sure to find God’s presence there.

Early Friends felt these kinds of church calendar rituals were unnecessary; they not only didn’t observe Advent but also originally didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter or any day set apart from any other.  There was a testimony against what was called “times and seasons,” and Friends felt that no day, no time, no person was any more special than any other because God was equally present in all. This is consistent with things like not doffing your hat to powerful people; using plain language—“thee” and “thou”–for everyone, rich and poor alike. The idea of not setting one thing above another arises directly from our belief in “that of God in everyone.” Everything and everyone and every day must be equally sacred because God is in it all.

And that idea, that God is present equally everywhere, is an important concept for us because it is the foundation of our desire to live sacramentally. If everything and everyone and every time gives us the opportunity to meet God, then every moment of our lives—Christmas or not—is an invitation to a holy encounter.

So having a day—or a season–set apart somehow to celebrate God, even the birth of God’s Son on the earth, was seen at the time as unnecessary and frivolous. And it ran the added risk of perhaps filling our minds with merry-making and taking us away from the more somber, reflective practice of waiting quietly on God. Quakers today are varied in their approach to Advent and the celebration of Christmas, and Friends respect the individual leadings of people to choose what’s right for their family. Here at Noblesville Friends, we take a “both-and” approach; we participate in the joy and celebration of the season, while at the same time holding close and dear the gift of inward communion with the Author and Originator of that joy and hope.

In our Old Testament reading for today, the psalmist talks about how his love and trust of God has grown as a result of that inward communion. God is teaching him, step by step, to understand and apply the precepts that guide his life. He says God’s words are sweeter than honey, and declares,

You word is a lamp for my feet
a light on my path.

If you have ever gone downstairs in the dark or tried to find your way outside with only a little moonlight for help, you know that darkness is disorienting and maybe even a little scary. Not only can we not see far in front of us, we don’t know what’s “out there,” and it’s hard to see our own feet to make sure we’re walking safely. We could step on something, lose our footing, and fall—which, as I have learned first-hand, gets riskier as we get older. (I suppose because we don’t bounce as well.) But even on the darkest night, having a light changes everything. We can walk with confidence, sure about our next step. Life feels less risky. And the things “out there” don’t worry us as much when we can see the road ahead and are sure of the One who’s guiding us.

For the common people of time Jesus’ day, life was hard, taxation was heavy, and ordinary laborers lived a precarious existence as they tried to provide for their families, living under Roman rule. The emperor Caesar Augustus had ordered that a census be taken throughout the lands his armies had conquered so that all citizens now under his rule could be forced to pay a tax—which Biblical scholars say could have been as much as 50-60% of what each family grew or earned. And those taxes wouldn’t go to support programs for public support, like they do today; instead, the payments went right into the rulers’ treasuries.

As the Christmas story opens, in the book of Luke, soon Mary and Joseph would be making the 100-mile trip to Bethlehem, by donkey and on foot, to register for the census in the town where Joseph had been born. On those cold Mediterranean nights, it would have been rough going, and a long, long trip. Especially for a young woman in her first pregnancy. I’m sure doctors wouldn’t let her make that trip today. We can imagine that the night around them may have been dark, and the times darker still, but because their journey was led and guided by God, they too had a lamp for the feet and for their hearts.

The promise of God’s light—ever present with each of us—is the promise of continuing revelation, the knowledge that we are all works in progress and God isn’t finished with any one of us yet. Because God’s light continues to help us grow throughout our lives, each day brings new wisdom, new opportunities to love better, to trust more, to forgive again, to open our hearts. Each day God accompanies us, providing light for our journey wherever we go—to the bank, to the doctor, stuck in traffic, on the couch—thank goodness we don’t have to ride a donkey to get there. But God is always our companion, ready anytime we listen to provide a comforting word, a fresh insight, an encouraging thought, the embrace of peace.

Our New Testament reading today begins the story of Jesus with words that are special to Friends because they point to a deep, spiritual understanding of the purpose and presence of God with us.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.”

How mysterious and lovely is that? And yet something in our hearts deeply understand it. The Word of God is a creative: God spoke the world into being. God said, “Let there be Light,” and there was Light. The Word is a powerful unit of divine possibility. What might it create—in our world, in our lives, today? The passage continues,

“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.”

We can make this clearer by substituting the word Christ for “him”: “Through Christ all things were made; without Christ nothing was made that has been made. In Christ was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” Heard this way, we get a sense of how central, how important, how vital Christ is to the living world and everyone in it. Christ is the light of all mankind, the whole world over. That right there is the heart of the Christmas story: Emmanuel, God-with-us.

And that is followed by a line that tells the story of Easter and Pentecost as well as the life of every faithful person ever since: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That is why we’re here right now. The Light drew us here and no measure of darkness was able to stop that. The light of Christ shines in us as a force for good in all that we do and no matter what kind of darkness we face–anxiety, illness, sorrow, temptation, fear, resentment, hard-heartedness—that darkness cannot and will not overcome God’s Light.

That’s the promise of the Light. It is the Light of Christ, always with us, leading us forward, lighting our feet and showing us the way to go. As George Fox said,

Mind the light of God in your consciences,
which will show you all deceit;
dwelling in it, (it) guides out of the many things into one spirit,
which cannot lie, nor deceive.
Those who are guided by it, are one.

Because the Inward Light is not vulnerable to whatever darkness may be nearby, our protection and success is already assured. We already know the end of this story. We need only to stay close to God, to turn our minds and hearts in God’s direction, when confusion and upset and temptations come. The step toward God is a step away from all that keeps us from living with love. With Christ’s Light as our guide, we come to understand ourselves and our situations in new ways—that’s what the psalmist was saying: we recognize the truth of God’s leading, we grow into calmer, kinder, more compassionate people. I like the way the poet Danna Faulds says this in her poem, Where Truth Might Take Me:

I'm not my good thoughts,
or the difficult ones, either.
I'm not the phrases that
arrange themselves into poems,
not the loads of laundry done,
the meals cooked, or bird
feeders filled with seed.
I'm not the kind deeds or
even the most inspired of
my creative dreams. What I
really am, the knower of the whole,
sits in love and silence until
there's at least a slim chance
I will remember the truth
when I open my eyes and
move back into life with all its
contradictions, ambiguities,
and paradoxes. If I can coax
myself to stay open today,
there's no telling where
truth might take me.

Where truth might take us is the hope and plan of Advent. God’s light is leading, and it is a lamp to our feet and a gift to our hearts. This Christmas season, let’s keep turning back to the quiet glow of God’s presence. Who know where the truth of love reborn might lead?

In closing, I’d like to share a beautiful thought from Joyce Rupp’s Advent booklet, Welcome the Light:

“The Sufi poet Hafiz suggests that God kisses us on the forehead in the morning and lights a “Holy Lamp” inside our hearts. What an inspiring image for us to carry this Advent as we welcome the presence of Emmanuel each day. Every morning as we awaken, the first thing to remember is that our inner being is a lantern of God’s love. The eternal flame of goodness is at the core of who we are. As this divine love permeates us, we will increasingly live as a loving reflection of Christ’s light.”

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