The prophets often used the metaphor of darkness to describe the world as they knew it and offered hope in the metaphor of God’s light that would transcend and dispel the darkness.
A few days ago, I understood more fully the metaphor when the ice storm of last Friday took down countless trees and left thousands of people without light or heat. Driving around town at night, it was obvious how dark the night really is. Even tonight, as we gather in the warmth and light, there are still tens of thousands without either.
Having grown up well after Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent light bulb, electric lights have been in every home I’ve ever lived in. I have rarely known times when light was no more than a flip of the switch away. Even those of you who grew up in rural areas where electricity was not commonplace knew that light was only as far away as a gas or oil lamp. A strike of the match, and there would be light on any day of the year and any hour of the night.
The prophets, on the other hand, relied upon fire to light up the night. Someone stood watch to keep the embers burning or they faced the task of starting a fresh fire the hard way. And in the winter months, the fire going out not only made it dark, it became cold as well. Someone had to stand the watch to keep the fire burning.
From those long nights of waiting for daylight, the prophets created the metaphor that has become so important to our celebration here tonight. The closest most of us have come to experiencing that kind of longing is on those rare occasions when we are visiting a relative and the power goes out and we happen to be walking through a strange house. We don’t know where things are or where we are. It’s disorienting.
Isaiah portrays his world as a world in darkness awaiting the dawn of a new day. In that new day, Isaiah foresees God’s light shining in and through a new King, a King yet to be born. There were many who ascended the thrones of power who believed that they were the Light of the World, but through their tactics of violence, suppression and abuse, they revealed only more darkness.
On the night Jesus is born, the Roman Emperor, Augustus, has already been proclaimed Son of God, Eternal King, Bringer of World Peace forever. In the eyes of the Roman Senate and the power brokers of the Empire, there was no question of this. The Roman Empire had happened upon a world in full darkness and ignorance and had brought the divine light to the world. Nevermind that the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, meant bloodshed and fear, war and retaliation of the worst kind. Nevermind that the Empire’s peace was never really a period of peace, but only a lull in the violence.
Jesus is born and no one notices. There is a longing in peoples’ hearts, a longing not unlike the longing of those who stand watch over the fire. It is a longing for someone to bring the dawn of a new day. It is a profound longing for justice and an end to killing and fear and power politics and business as usual. Two thousand years have passed and here we are, still in the darkness, still waiting for a different path for our world, still praying and crying out for justice instead of oppression, still looking for the light that will lead us away from the Empire’s power and domination. We look around us, we observe our world, and as Americans we realize that we have, willingly or not, consciously or not, we have becom the Roman Empire. American peacekeeping is not about real peace, but about creating lulls between periods of war. To fully appreciate this, all we have to do is look at the past 100 years of our history to know that this is true.
Henri Nouwen tells this story: A rabbi is having a discussion with his students, exploring the moment when darkness ends and daylight begins. He wants to understand exactly what will provide irrefutable evidence that the light has come. One student suggested that the night watch would end when there was enough light to distinguish between a sheep and a dog.
The rabbi was not convinced.
Another student offered the suggestion that it happened when you could distinguish between a fig tree and a grape vine.
But that did not satisfy the rabbi either.
Finally, one student offered an answer that everyone found to be true. The dawn begins when you can look into the face of a human being and have enough light to recognize them as your sister or brother. Until then, it is still night.
“In 1942, the darkness of war blanketed the world. In March, the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies and with a policy of “Asia for the Asian” interred all non-Asians. Conditions in the internment camps were grim. Cockroaches, rats, bedbugs, and lice infested everything. Food was scarce, and more than half of the internees did not survive.
“A Presbyterian missionary, Margaret Dryburgh, and Norah Chambers, a graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Music numbered among the prisoners. They were determined to offer their music to the camp, but they had no musical scores and no instruments. The two women painstakingly recreated four-voice arrangements of works by Schubert, Dvorak, and Chopin from their memory. Prisoners’ voices substituted for instruments. Just after Christmas sixty-six years ago the “vocal orchestra” presented its first concert.
“In the midst of that dark night of the soul, amid hatred and violence, the prisoners sang. They sang because it lifted sagging spirits and brought hope to weary souls. They sang to bring a ray of beauty to brighten their bleak world. They sang to proclaim their confidence in the presence of a Spirit that the darkness could not stop. ”
(Luchs, Arvin R. “The Gift: December 22 – 28.” The Upper Room Disciplines 2003 (A Book of Daily Devotions Based on the Lectionary). Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2002, p 371).
These women understood the metaphor of darkness as Isaiah intended it. And they proclaimed the presence of God’s light in the midst of the darkness, whether the world around them confirmed their belief or not.
Our Mass tonight will end with us holding lighted candles and singing “Silent Night”. The candles are not intended to illuminate our faces nor are they simply intended to light the page of your programs. Rather, the light will be given to you, passed from one to another to remind us of Isaiah’s prophecy that we are called to illuminate the darkness around us. The light of Christ burns within us and we can see it clearly when we use that light to illuminate our neighbors and see them as beloved sisters and brothers of our God. Isaiah’s prophecy will be fulfilled when we help others experience the fulfillment of their longings, as the light dawns with the coming new day.
In the Hebrew understanding of keeping time, the new day begins at sunset. Tonight, on the threshold of that new day, we proclaim our belief that the light of the world is here, that the darkness has no power over us, that Christ has already defeated the power of the Empire. Our longings and our hopes, along with the longings and hopes of all our sisters and brothers can only be fulfilled when we choose to become that light and see everyone for who she or he is: an incarnation of the Babe in the manger, the presence of the living Christ.