IlluminationLectionary Text: John 1: 6-8, 19-28
I love Christmas lights. When I was little, my family would pick at least one night right before or immediately after Christmas and drive around and look at the Christmas lights. Later, as a young adult, I several times drove my Grandmother around to look at them. My Grandmother Reue seemed to have as much of the childlike appreciation of the lights that I had always had. Many of us are like that. There’s something about Christmas lights—full of wonder and awe, a sort of call to the season for us. These lights are comfortable for us. They are reassuring. From a practical standpoint, they’re virtually useless. But you know as well as I do that they are a sign of the season.
The Gospel passage that we read for this week uses that image of light also. For the writer of The Gospel According to John, the Logos was the light of humanity, the true light. There are no announcements here of Jesus’ coming and there is no birth story. But this is essentially the equivalent: the coming of Jesus, the Incarnation, is the coming of the true light, which enlightens everyone and illumines everything. But where the writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke use an angel to proclaim Christ’s coming, this writer uses John the Baptist. Now whatever you have to say about this camel hair-wearing, locust-eating, wilderness wanderer, he took his job seriously. John understood himself as called by God to point to the light as well as to that which is illuminated by the light. He didn’t get lost, as many do, in the rhetoric about Christ as the light without realizing the purpose of the light itself. And sometimes John’s words were not very popular. He went around like some wild man in the wilderness preaching repentance, preaching that we needed to change, preaching about the one who was coming after him, preaching about the light that was just around the bend, a light such that we had not seen. “John,” we want to say, “Shhhh!…you’ll wake the baby.”
That’s where we want to be—at the manger, kneeling before our Lord, basking in the illumination of the star above, and yet we still want to hold onto those shadows in our life. For there is familiarity; there is safety; there is that which we can control, there is that place to which we can retreat when life is just too hard. And the light…We would rather the light be allowed to remain in our thinking depicted as a warm and comfortable place to be. Just let us sit here awhile with this sleeping baby, the Christ child, there in the manger while the North Star dances overhead. This is a sign of the season!
But John the Baptist was right. This light is not a twinkling, intermittent light like those that light our houses this season. This is not a warm, glowing, candle-lit light that makes us feel comfortable even as we sit in its shadows. And it’s closer to us than any star in the universe. This light is different. This light is so big and so bright and so powerful that sometimes it hurts to look at it. Sometimes it is just too painful. This light is so pervasive and so encompassing, that it casts no shadows. The light of Christ, this light to which John pointed, is not a warm glow but is rather a radical illumination of everything around it. Because you see, Christ did not come into the world just to be our personal guiding light so that we could see where to go on this journey. The Christ light is also a light that shows us what needs to be done while we’re on that journey. Christoph Frederick Blumhardt says that “a light has a purpose; a light ought to shine into our lives so that we can see what needs to be done and set our hand to it and clean it up.”[i]
That is the Light of Christ.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, it will show us things that we’d rather not see, things with which we’d rather not have to deal. I’ll make a confession here. You can tell when I get too busy in my life by looking at my house. Right now, my house is atrocious. If you walked into it, you would experience the worst housekeeping that you can possibly imagine. In my kitchen, I have these really bright overhead canister lights. I also have these wonderful, warm, under-cabinet lights that I absolutely love. I realized the other night that I like my kitchen better right now at night when I turn off the canister lights and turn on those under-cabinet lights. They are beautiful as they reflect off the granite and project a warm, delicate glow to the kitchen. But the real reason is because with them, the kitchen looks clean. How easy it is just to forget about those things we need to do when we can’t see them!
The Christ light is not a warm, delicate light. The Christ light is this incredibly bright, all-encompassing light that enables us to see the world differently. It is a light that illumines not only the present, but also the future. The Spiritual Masters would refer to this illumination as a type of liminality, a way of existing in two worlds, betwixt and between. We are standing in the world in which we live, but the light is illumining the world to come. And when we learn how to see with that light, the world in which we live will look different. We will finally see that some of this is just not right. We can then no longer close our eyes to what the light has shown us. It will be impossible. Because, for us, all the shadows will finally once and for all be exposed. We will no longer be able to live with hunger and homelessness, with destruction of people’s lives and waste of our planet, with violence and war, or with the exclusion of any of God’s children from the light. The light in our lives will find those things not just sad, but unacceptable, inexcusable, incapable of being.
How, then, do we prepare ourselves to look at this light. How do we turn our eyes, so shielded by all the shadows of this world and look at that bright illuminating light without it being uncomfortable for us? Well, you know as well as I do that the way to prepare yourself to look at light is to look at light. And as uncomfortable as that may be, there is no other way. In her book, Lighted Windows
, Margaret Silf tells the story of when her daughter was born and how one of the first problems that they encountered was light. She said that “to make sure that [our daughter] would always experience the presence of a gentle, comforting light if she awoke during the night, we installed a little lamp close to the nursery door. It also meant that if she cried we could grope our way to her even in a half-asleep state.”[ii]
But they soon realized that even the little nursery light burned their eyes, especially after the third or fourth time they went into the nursery during the night, groggy from sleep with eyes burning. “So,”
she says, “we went to the local electrical shop to ask whether they had any bulbs lower than 15 watts!” “It’s strange,”
she comments, “how light that is so needful for growth and life can also be so hurtful when we are unprepared for it.”[iii]
In this Advent season, the way that we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Light is by looking at that light. That is why God came and burst forth into our humanness—to show us what full illumination looks like and to call us into the light. Do you remember that bumper sticker a couple of years ago? I haven’t seen it in awhile. “God is coming…look busy.” It’s funny but it’s wrong. God is here…get busy. God has come. The baby IS awake and now it’s our turn to wake up, rub our sleep-filled, groggy eyes, and with every intentional part of our being, look into the light and see what we are called to do. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth. THAT is the sign of the season—all of Creation in full illumination so that we may get a glimpse of what is to come.
In the Name of the One who said “Let There Be Light” and then brought the light to earth that we might see the world the way it was created to be. Amen.
So, go and be light!
Grace and Peace,
[i] Christoph Friederich Blumhardt, “Action in Waiting”, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, (Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing, 2001), 11/24.
[ii] Margaret Silf, Lighted Windows: Advent Reflections for a World in Waiting, (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2004.), 101.