First Light

Scripture Passage:  Genesis 1: 1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day (and the longest night) of the year.  This night that just ended in the wee hours of the morning was about 14 hours long in the southern part of the United States. If you live farther north, you had an even longer night.  In fact, the northernmost parts of Canada and Alaska had less than 3 hours of light.  (And winter has begun, so Happy Winter!)  The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin “solstitium”, from two words meanings “sun” and “stand still”.  Technically, this comes from the fact that during the days surrounding the solstice, the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky and then seems to have the same noontime elevation for several days in a row.  To early astronomers, the sun appeared to hang in the sky, suspended, paralyzed, as if waiting for some word to move on.

So today we read the passage that speaks of the first light, the first time that the light was spoken into being.  I think some people have this notion that nothing existed prior to that.  But it did.  God was there.  God was there in the midst of what is described as a formless, disordered void, as darkness that covered and consumed everything as winds swept over the waters.  There wasn’t “nothing”; there was a seemingly dark, chaotic, noisy something.  And then God, in God’s infinite wisdom, spoke the light into being.  And the light pushed its way into the darkness, parting the grasp on everything that the darkness had held.  Now note that this isn’t the sun.  (That came later.)  Sometimes we make the mistake of reading this passage and we tend to think of the sun as the source of all light.  But go back and read beyond the passage I showed.  The sun doesn’t come into play until the “fourth day” of the passage so there must have been eons of time between when light came to be and the creation of this sphere of hot plasma that reflects it.  The First Light was something different.  The First Light was a new creation, parting and intersecting the darkness, weakening its grasp on everything, and shining into what was ahead.  The First Light is what God created to lead the way to everything else.

It’s hard for us to get a sense of the profound sight of light dispelling utter darkness. We are seldom, if ever, in utter darkness.  We have the benefit of moonlight and stars and streetlights and car lights and the glow of cities that never really sleep.  Years ago I stepped into a small boat and floated through a glowworm cave at Doubtful Sound in Southwest New Zealand. (How odd, you say!) The cave was lit with artificial light that helped us maneuver our way to the deepest part of the cave.  And then they shut the lights off.  I have never been in darkness like that.  It was the kind of darkness that almost hurt your eyes as your brain’s memories of light bounced off of it and back.  There were no shadows, no rainbow-type rings around dim lights.  There were no forms of anything (huh…it was “formless”, to refer back to the Scripture passage!).  There was just darkness.  My three friends and I were in this boat with two Japanese tourists and two German tourists.  None of us spoke the other languages.  When the lights went off and the darkness consumed us, our initial response was to reach for each other and hold hands.  So, as I floated through this darkness in complete silence with only the sound of the water lapping at the boat, holding hands with my friend Debby and an older Japanese man that I had just met,  As the boat turned down another tunnel, we got our first glimpse.  It was only two or three or first but as we continued on, there were eventually millions of glowworms shining into the darkness.  We could see the cave, the boat, each other.  We sort of sheepishly dropped hands at that point as if we were somehow intruding into each other’s light.  But what I realized is that you can only see the First Light when you’re in the darkness.

Sometimes the darkness is just too overwhelming for words.  Even though this is a joyous season, the world is still hurting.  There is still violence and tragedy.  And for many of us in our personal lives, there is still pain of loss or hurt.  Some of us are grieving someone that is not here this Christmas.  Some of us are struggling with job loss or frustration or changes that we’re just not really ready to handle.  And we are all living in this almost surreal time created by a pandemic that is scary and all-consuming.  The promise of this season is not that there will be no darkness any more than the promise of this life is that there will never be sadness or grief or disappointment or depression or despair.  Life is full of shadows and longest nights.  Life is full of those times when we cannot see the light.  Life is full of roads on which we cannot see where to go to return from exile.  Life is full of poverty and destruction and terror.  And life is full of those times when we’re so afraid, we just want to hold hands in the darkness. 

But in the midst of the darkness, God dwells, unknown and mysterious, the Word that created and dwelled in the darkness even before light came to be.  And even in our darkest places, the first light begins to break through.  That, my friends, is indeed the message of the season.  God tiptoes into the night and gently, very gently, hands us hope for our world, peace for our souls, and light for our longest nights in the form of a baby who shows us the way to walk through the darkness so that everyone might begin to see the world through a new light.  When we are standing in the light, and we look at the darkness, we don’t see darkness.  Light does that—it teaches us to see even through the darkness. 

Maybe the reason we celebrate Christmas in the darkest week of the year is because for generations our ancestors have known that it is in the darkest darkness that we recognize the light of hope.  So in the midst of a season of darkness and endings, we choose to celebrate birth and beginnings.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “when it is dark enough, [we] see the stars.” There is a Maori Proverb that says to turn your face to the [light] and the shadows will fall behind you.  Look, my friends…the Light is beginning to break, dispelling the darkness around us.  It is the First Light that shows us the beauty and leads us to everything else.  And it is very, very good.

Too many of us panic in the dark.  We don’t understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through to real light. (Sue Monk Kidd)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Lighted Windows

Candle in the WindowScripture Passage for Reflection:  John 1:5

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There are bumps in every road–even the road to Bethlehem.  There are things that we plan, that we need, that somehow do not go the way we envisioned.  For me, one of my favorite services is the Service of the Longest Night, the service of light where we remember that even in the midst of those bumps in the road, even in the darkest darkness, is God, walking with us, bumping along just like we are.  And then Wednesday night, I got sick.  Now I don’t do sick well.  It’s hard to admit that I’m sick.  But Thursday was just not going to happen for me so I missed the Service of the Longest Night.  I missed the service that I probably needed to help me get through some bumps in the road because of a bump in the road.  Go figure!

I actually don’t think that original journey to Bethlehem was without its bumps.  Life is like that.  The little caravan with the pregnant couple whose world had been turned upside down probably encountered lots of things.  They probably couldn’t drive straight through.  There were places that they had to avoid, places that were filled with danger from thieves or wild animals or parts of the road that were all but impassable.  And the weather was totally unpredictable.  Who knew that it would be this cold at night?  But they knew that this was something that they had to walk and they knew that they were not alone.  But it was so incredibly dark!

We are told that this is the season of light.  We are usually made to believe that this season should be a joyous one of celebration.  We are made to feel that we should put aside our worries and our cares and enjoy ourselves; we are told to embrace the celebrations and be happy; we are told to look toward the light, the birth of the Christ child.  And yet, tonight, here we sit in darkness. This is the winter solstice, the longest night of the year–fourteen hours of darkness.  The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin “solstitium”, from two words meanings “sun” and “stand still”.  Technically, this comes from the fact that during the days surrounding the solstice, the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky and then seems to have the same noontime elevation for several days in a row.  To early astronomers, the sun appeared to hang in the sky, suspended, paralyzed, as if waiting for some word to move on.

So it seems that on this night of darkness, it is appropriate to acknowledge those parts of our lives that do not seem to “fit” with the joyous season—our frustrations, our fears and anxieties, our anger, our depression, our loneliness, our despair, our grief.  These are not things that we can just leave at the door to the season and then pick them up later.  They are part of us.  And just as we bear them, God takes them and holds them and in what can only be attributed to the mystery of God, somehow manages to put a light in the window in the midst of our darkest night.

That’s exactly what happened that first Christmas.  Think about it.  Things were far from completely right with the world.  The young couple Mary and Joseph were not wealthy, prominent citizens of the capital city of Jerusalem.  They were poor working class citizens of a no-name town in what was essentially a third-world country.  Remember the Scriptures:  nothing good comes from Nazareth.  There was nothing there.  And we tend to romanticize their trip to Bethlehem, making it into some sort of painting of a starlit camping trip with a lovely dark blue backdrop and a beaming star above.  That wasn’t exactly the way it was.  If they did indeed have to make that journey as the writer of the Gospel According to Luke claims, it’s about an 80 mile trip, a 4-day journey under the best of circumstances.  But, as we know, the teen-age Mary was pregnant and at that time, they would probably want to avoid Samaria (which was not the friendliest of territories to the Israelites), which means they probably would have circled through what is now modern-day Jordan, making it an even longer trip.  And, remember, the whole reason that they were traveling at all was for the tax census, imposed by a foreign government to pay for foreign rulers that ruled their lives.  These were not the best of times.  They traveled in darkness.  But that part of the story somehow falls away when it is illumined by the light in the window.  God came, Immanuel, God with us.  “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

You know, since humanity began, light has been important.  But for those of us who live in the city, where profound physical darkness almost never comes, we may have lost that sense of what light really means.  It’s about more than just lighting our way or giving us a pathway so that we can see where we are going.  Think about those who lived before there was electricity and streetlights every 500 feet or so.  When the sun went down, they were plunged into darkness, save for a few strategically-placed stars.  Until, that is, they lit a candle.  And cultures all over the world and throughout history have had traditions of putting a candle in the window.

The Irish tradition of putting a candle in a window is a symbol of hospitality.  Reminiscent of the first Christmas, it was seen as a gesture to ancient travelers who could find no shelter that there was room for them.  During those times in Irish history when Catholicism was abolished, a candle in the window designated a safe place for Catholic members and clergy.  And we’ve all seen movies and depictions of people trudging through a dark and foreboding snowy night only to be saved by seeing a light in a window.  So, lighted windows are much, much more than something that provides us light to see.  They are places of hospitality, of welcome.  They signify shelter and protection.  A candle in the window draws us in from the darkness.  It brings us home.

So, maybe we who live always surrounded by light don’t really have an appreciation for what lighted windows really mean—until, that is, we find ourselves surrounded by darkness, until we find ourselves encountering a bump in the road.  And in those times, there is the light—a place of welcome, of shelter, of safety.  It draws us home.  The promise of the season is not that there will be no darkness but that it will not overcome the light, that it will not overcome us.

Reflection:  What bumps in the road have you encountered this Advent?  Where have the lights in the window been for you?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli