St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church
Diocese of New Westminster
Anglican Church of Canada
Wednesday 7:00 pm
Thursday 2:00 pm
December 24th Christmas Eve, 2017 John Marsh
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
And so, we have listened to the story of a babe in a manger, of angels on high, and of shepherds in fields - it’s why we’re here isn’t it? And truth be told, we knew the story, at least in its broad outlines, before we arrived.
But if it’s true that familiarity breeds contempt, we must dare to ask a question: have we heard the story?
Have we truly heard the story of the birth of the incarnate one?
Hearing this story requires not just listening with our ears but hearing with our heart and soul thereby opening to the mythic power of the narrative. Truly ‘hearing’ requires us to realize that the mythic is not simply that which is untrue but that which may be profoundly true. Mere facts are too sterile to embody the sacred and the mythical qualities of this night are enormous.
To ‘free the fable’, releasing its mythic power to transform, we must, as needs be, open to the realm of dreams and desires, of births and deaths, of hope and despair – those places of grace where heart hallows hurt, harbours hope, and divinity is found birthing ‘a way out of no way’. ¹
The path before us is not overly clear as too many lights blight vision - bright lights may blind us to others and distract us from our souls...
And so, we begin – perhaps counter intuitively – not with light but with its corollary – darkness – we believe that this season is a season of light but light in isolation is never consolation – it’s just glare!
To feel the profound import of the season we need to shift our awareness...
(Candles are slowly extinguished; lights are turned off)
It is night...
Seasonally – a time of solstice...
As we are enveloped by darkness we may be unnerved (if so, hold on) for night carries the note of dark night, sleepless night, involving for some, perhaps most, the time of darkest hour where deepest fears and needs are confronted; this is the time where the hurts of our hearts surface, eluding all attempts to ignore, deny, the unwelcome, the uncomfortable, to repress those ‘little deaths’ of desperations plight.
Within dark nights, we come face to face with our existential dramas.
And yet, sit awhile longer - notice the night, darkness is not lights denial…
Darkness is to light what silence is to sound.
(Chant – Our Darkness is Never Darkness)²
Darkness is a place of paradox, a place of hiding and revelation, a symbol of both pain and promise.
“A people who have walked in darkness...” (See Isaiah 9:2)
“We who have walked in darkness...”
Our experience of darkness, in revealing the habits of our hearts, reveals life’s cutting edge - hurts in need of healing, hopes in need of hearing, calls in need of heeding, confessions in need of airing - our experiences of darkness are what labour pains are to birth...
And so, within sacred narratives this night –
Darkness illumines the prophetic import of the story – stories of reversals, bondage, exile, of promises made and covenants broken – the searing existential drama of tears and soulful tears: narratives of pain, hopelessness, impoverishment yet all within a soaring poetry of hope, justice and beauty…
Darkness illumines the political import of the story – century after century of a ‘fool’s game’: the endless pursuit of power and dominance accompanied by the endless intrigue of politics as usual, of ‘emperors’ decrees – ah yes, dear Augustus – Augustus, the very symbol of success; he too considered a ‘saviour’, a ‘son of god’, with a program blessed by the gods: peace through victory; but peace and victory for whom? For most of us there’s just ‘no room’ – no room at the inn, no room at the top and certainly not enough room on the ladder up; for most of us there’s no way out of empire’s taxing burden…
And yet, if there is no way out of the usual political game, is it not possible that a political alternative would seek an unexpected expression; is it not possible that a new political sensibility would be birthed and pondered in a barn, that an alternative political word would be announced in the fields amongst the displaced, the lowly, the shepherds?
Is it not possible?
Darkness illumines the psychic import of the story – words spoken to soul’s depth – where hope collides with hurt and faith faces off with failure – words spoken - words echoing back...
Darkness questions divinity’s presence or, even more troubling, divinity’s absence - “Where are you?”
Darkness questions our presence or, even more troubling, our absence – “Where are you?”
Darkness births a cry, a plea - “Hear” - “Come” - “Help” - and pleas point to the presence of ‘life’s edge’ where darkness dangles light while the psalmist intones:
...even the darkness is not dark to you;
Darkness illumines the personal import of the story – our story within mythic story, mythic story birthing the question: What is waiting to come to birth within you but for your resistance to labour’s pain?
As the poet says,
...this opening to life
we have refused
again, and again...³
Despite our refusals, and with all its paradox, darkness dangles divinity perhaps birthing ‘a way out of no way’...
“A people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2)
(Light one candle)
A great light but not necessarily a large bright intense light – just a light – a flickering flame – fragile, in need of conservation and preservation…and yet it is possibility promised – possibility birthed – possibility without guarantee but nevertheless a step, a next step when there seemed to be no way forward...
And this is, is it not, the nature of all birth? For birth is but life begun; birth is but possibilities to be actualized – fragile, in need of conservation, preservation and consideration.
Jesus’ birth is not now, never was, meant to be the object of exclusive worship.
Jesus’ birth is the mythic embodiment of ‘good news of great joy for all people’ (see Luke 2:10), good news of ‘Emmanuel’ - ‘God with us’... within us, within the body of creation, within the shared flesh of all life...
...the holy within shared flesh
‘Light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1:5) ... not because it overwhelms and overpowers but because of an invitation to become ‘shared flesh in sharing light’... (Candle light shared)
Shared flesh is like shared light... fragile, flickering possibilities...easily extinguished yet with the possibility of being relit...shared flesh sharing light embodying desires of ‘making a way out of no way’…
And so, it’s not just Jesus who is the reason for the season; this night is not just about his birth but our eternally coming to birth within compassion’s crèche...
As the mystic Meister Eckhart has said,
What good is it to me if this eternal birth takes place but does not take place in myself? What good is it to me for the creator to give birth to [the divine child] if I do not give birth to [the child of God] in my time and culture? This then is the fullness of time: when the [child] of God is begotten in us.
Unto to us a child is born... god is with us...not only in a baby’s skin but in a lover’s eye, in a winter’s sunrise after night’s fall⁴...
In the end, we celebrate light in darkness/ darkness in light – with matter and all that matters aglow – shared flesh sharing light…
And to quote the poet again:
These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to life
we have refused
again and again
¹ Truth to tell, in being so open, we risk encounter with the experience of ‘no way out but once born, there is ‘no way out’ and that’s life…
² Our darkness is never darkness in your sight
The deepest night is clear as the daylight. Common Praise #549
³ David Whyte, from the poem ‘Enough’ in the book The Heart Aroused
⁴ This line is a paraphrase of a thought of Catherine Keller. See Face of the Deep page 221.
⁵ Whyte, Ibid