Well last night, we heard the familiar Christmas story from Luke, and it kind of goes down like Christmas butter. Familiar and tasty. Perfect for what we need on our cozy evening.
Now this Christmas Day we get some meat from the Gospel of John. We kind of have to put on our thinking caps to conceptualize what John is talking about – the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us. Seems pretty esoteric, man! The Word is Christ, and Christ is the light of the world, who was in the beginning. This passage that we read here on Christmas Day, is where all the meat, about who Jesus is and what Christians believe about him, comes from!
Jesus is God. Jesus was in the beginning. John has us start envisioning Jesus present at the creation story! Not just God, the Father, but God the Son, God the Holy Spirit – all present creating the world, bringing the world into being, and giving light to the world.
Christmas is a festival of lights. Pagan religions celebrate a festival of lights too at the winter solstice, which is roughly December 18-23, because in the Northern Hemisphere, the world is darker at this time, especially way up north. And on those deep, dark days of winter, there are some moments there where Northern farmers, for centuries, who depend on the light for their daily income, longingly wondering if the sun will ever come back to shine on their crops. And the ancient pagan religions began to hold celebrations, that started in the darkness. And then of course, when the light returned, as it always did, it was time to party!
And they would bring out greenery, pine trees, holiday (holly day) trees, with red holly berries, and they would light candles as symbolic and as celebration of the light of the Sun, s-u-n, which had finally returned after the Longest Night of the year.
When Heather and I were in Ireland last February visiting my brother Tim and his wife Caitriona, we toured an ancient Passage Tomb at a place called Newgrange, attributed to such pagan religious groups that probably held such festivals. This particular site dated back to 3200 B.C.! I mean, that’s as old, some say older than the pyramids in Egypt!
It was quite amazing the entrance was this narrow door that faced the rising sun. You had to duck your head to get in, then walk about 100 feet through this tunnel, until you got to this chamber room that was about a quarter of the size of our sanctuary here. Archeologists can only speculate about what exactly that room was used for. But it had to be somehow religious. And the amazing thing was that every year, on the winter solstice, where the sun is lined up with the earth just so, light shines down that narrow passage way and lights up the entire chamber. It only lasts for 17 minutes. And only so many people can fit in that chamber. Today, the people of Ireland enter their names into a lottery in order to be chosen to experience this lighting of the chamber at Newgrange. It’s apparently quite spectacular.
Today I think we take images of light and dark for granted, because of our knowledge of science and our readily available electricity.
But even this past year here in San Diego…remember that one night when our power went out? I’m thankful for that night for our purposes here today because…
We get just a little taste of the fear and anxiety the ancients must have experienced in the dark. No flashlights, or iPod apps, and in damp places even a challenge to get a fire light going…
And these types of celebrations didn’t just happen in Ireland or Northern Europe. They differed obviously from region to region throughout the Northern hemisphere, but the sun, s-u-n, like water is/was the most powerful universal life-force, that was celebrated and reverenced everywhere.
Christians in the 4th century started to morph and appropriate those pagan winter festivals of light and dark as a fitting celebration time for Christ’s birth. They had the story, so when to share that story... Fascinating! These are the roots of our traditions – they come out of these seemingly simple, yet quite profound celebrations about darkness and light. Christians too then, would bring out evergreen trees, and light candles, but they added new layers of meaning to these symbols. Evergreens symbolized the year-round love and presence of God. And candles…and fire…for Christians, they now symbolized the S-o-n of God, not the s-u-n, who was the light of the world. It was Jesus Christ, who warms the earth, who comes among us as flesh and blood, and who lights our way. So what might seem to us as esoteric, dreamy ideas in John’s first verses had powerful flesh and blood resonances with all those early people who heard John’s Gospel.
Think how many heard it and converted to Christianity on the spot because the images were so rich and compelling…and made so much sense.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we celebrate this DAY Jesus as the light of the world. Just as we can often take for granted the sunlight, so we can also forget at times the light of Christ which brings so much joy to our lives. John says, so much “grace and truth”. Today we pause, and celebrate Jesus – as both tiny baby, born among the poor and the meek (which was more of the emphasis last night), and today, our celebration expands to cosmic proportions as we name and celebrate and give thanks for Jesus, the very light of the universe!
This far-reaching, unconditionally loving God, this Jesus the Christ, who lights and warms the world with love, also reaches out to you this day, offering you, with all the world the ultimate Christmas gift, which is grace and truth, love and forgiveness, the promise of eternal life. This is why the angels sing, “peace on earth”: because God Jesus, the light of the world, the light of life, fills the earth and you and me with that peace, which passes all understanding. That peace is yours this Christmas Day and always. Thanks be to God. Amen.