The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1:5
They say religion is a leap in the dark. I was on the train a week or two back and was disconcerted to hear two business men discussing family members who’d turned religious, lamenting it as something obscure and undesirable. Their whole attitude summarised that of the false enlightenment that surrounds us which sees religion as a leap into the dark.
In recent months the ‘enlightened’ attitudes of British secularism have obscured the age old institution of marriage, eroded the prohibition of suicide and opened the way towards three parent children. The obscuring of our Christian moral foundation as a society is a direct consequence of pushing faith to the margins of public life.
Over the same period many of us have been digesting a new icon of faith within the world community in Pope Francis. This man’s welcome engagement with the poorest people in the world and marginalised people in western society, such as refugees and gay people, has led many people not of his communion, including myself, to read his words.
Francis’ first encyclical was published in June and I recently reviewed it for Chichester Magazine and the Church of England magazine New Directions. What brilliance, I thought, as I read it, to counter perceptions of faith as a leap in the dark or obscurantism with a papal encyclical that shines with the light of faith!
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
What is faith? Francis paints his picture in bright colours and I now quote his words. In the great cathedrals light comes down from heaven by passing through windows depicting the history of salvation. God’s light comes to us through the account of his self-revelation... In the love of God revealed in Jesus, faith perceives the foundation on which all reality and its final destiny lies… Faith knows that God has drawn close to us, that Christ has been given to us as a great gift which inwardly transforms us, dwells within us and thus bestows on us the light that illumines the origin and the end of life.
I was struck by Francis’ image of faith as a realising of God’s self disclosure being like the way daylight lights up our stained glass representation of tonight’s story. If it were day you’d see the nativity scene here because light will have come from beyond this building.
At Midnight Mass we ask the light of the Holy Spirit to shine in our hearts to warm them to that manger scene, and what St Paul describes as the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6b)
To have faith is nothing obscure. It’s to hear God’s call, to see your life as part of his awesome reality and to touch the Lord in the sacraments. It is ‘to grasp reality’s deepest meaning and to see how much God loves this world and is constantly guiding it towards himself.’
Far from going into some obscure realm Christian faith’s about living our lives in this world with ever greater commitment and intensity. That commitment to the good of the world is a commitment to partnership with people of good will wherever they are, as the Christmas angel song reminds us – Glory to in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will.
God’s self disclosure – he is love, love of a Father for his Son in the Spirit – God’s self-disclosure given in Bethlehem by the Son taking flesh, announces love as the be all and end all of the universe.
God, who made all that is, loves all that is, just because it is – including you and me! This is heartening good news. It puts heart into those working in the name of that Love, alongside all of good will on this planet, to create wealth and distribute it justly, to feed the hungry, bring peace with justice to the troubled nations and hope for the future.
The light of faith born at Christmas isn’t so much about brightening church interiors like tonight (this morning) as about building hope for the future. Tonight’s feast marks God’s investment in humanity. The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
Far from a leap in the dark the Christian religion is about coming into the light of Jesus Christ and bringing the world into it. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. For twenty centuries the light of Jesus Christ has warmed and defrosted frozen hearts into extraordinary service. Ann Govas’ splendid book on our church windows recalls such service kindled within these very walls. Take that warm light which shone through St Giles school teacher Sidney Peek who gave his life as a missionary in what is now Malawi, dying at 21 of black water fever and recalled in St Stephen’s window. Or how the same light shone through Katherine Marshall and Lucy Foster who founded a home for sick and incurable children in Kilburn, recalled in the window of St Monica.
(This morning) Tomorrow at dawn God’s natural light (shone) will shine again through these windows - the nativity window and those of Sidney, Katherine and Lucy - to make the images come alive. (Does) Will his supernatural light find a welcome in this congregation here assembled, so we too can be caught up into building God’s future for the world?
We don’t need to be lifted from obscurity into being the subject of a church window, but if we too are to lighten the world’s obscure darkness we do need knowledge of the Love that first dawned on Christmas day.
God bless you this night, and raise you out of darkness into the light of his self-disclosure which is Love, into the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.