Light and Glory Are All About Us
In mid-Advent, for the last two years, Christa and I have made time to travel to Princeton to visit Professor Robert Jenson and his wife Blanche. He was once a colleague of hers and has been a friend for many years. He is a Lutheran theologian of strong ecumenical commitments and Catholic sympathies, and many of his peers call him the most important Protestant theologian writing in English. He is well into his eighties and physically much weakened, although mentally as sharp as ever.
On each visit he has asked me the same question: has my theology actually changed since I became a Catholic? That may seem to you a very odd question with a simple answer: of course; Fr. Klein was a Lutheran pastor and he is now a Catholic priest. My theology must have changed. But not so fast. I still confess the same Creed and read the same Scriptures, after all.
Obviously, I became Catholic because of many changes of mind, but theology is the technical reflection on the good news about Jesus Christ and how it affects the person and the Church, and the denominational lines are not always so sharp as you might think.
Well, I had a year to think about it, and this year I had at least one answer with which I will not burden you. But there is something else that I came to realize in the two weeks since this year’s visit. Protestants very much emphasize the Word of God, and it is certainly central for Catholics also. God reveals himself to us through what is preached and heard and what has been written down.
But I have come in the last decade to appreciate more and more the Catholic emphasis on ‘seeing.’ God comes to us through our eyes as well as through our ears. This is a major emphasis in the ancient church fathers and with some pivotal modern theologians as well. The faith is an illumination. God sheds his light in our darkness. We hear his Word but we also see his Word, his communication. God creates by his word, but the first words ascribed to him in Genesis are “Let there be light.” And at no time is that emphasis on light and sight and illumination more central than in this season. The tableau of lighting all around us in this season bears a gaudy testimony to the appearance of God in the flesh in the infant Jesus. God is made visible. Isaiah says that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. And so we have.
And then there are the two great Gospel readings at the center of the Christmas celebration.
First, there is Luke’s beloved account of the birth of Jesus in the stable. It is night; it is dark; but it is a warm, homey setting. So it has always seemed to me since a childhood largely spent in a barn. In that deep, pre-industrial darkness of Bethlehem, the glory of the Lord bursts around the shepherds. The shepherds find and see and tell. Morning comes – perhaps while the shepherds are still on their way – and all will be clearly visible. There is something to be seen here.
Then the wise men see a star. And forty days later, when Mary goes to the Temple for her purification, the aged Simeon, who has waited long, will take the child in his arms and call him “a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” Light and glory are all about us. God’s revelation can be seen, and though we do not lay our natural eyes on the baby Jesus, it takes only the slightest exercise of imagination to see him.
And the Catholic tradition gives you lots of help. Our churches are always filled with visual stimuli – with the exception of some architectural and liturgical misfires in recent decades – and at this season we have the crèche and in it we see an honest effort at replication of Christ’s birth. And the rest of the year windows, statues, icons and other paintings draw our eyes to the Savior who came to us in the most humble of circumstances. There are even still Christmas cards that picture the Nativity. And there is always Mary.
Nor should we forget that the entirety of the written Word of God rests on the witness of those who heard and experienced and saw. The deeds of Moses and David and all the other heroes of the Old Testament were seen. The Baby Jesus was seen. Jesus’ ministry was seen and remembered. And his resurrection was seen and reported – and somewhat later he appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus as a literally blinding light.
On Christmas Eve we hear from Luke and envision his gentle portrait of the birth of Jesus in a night pierced by heaven’s light.
But on Christmas morning we hear from the prologue to the Gospel of John. The Fourth Gospel gives us no account of the birth. There is no manger, no shepherds, no angels, and the only person mentioned by name is John the Baptist. But from John the Evangelist we get the divine meaning of it all.
He starts actually with hearing: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Thus he describes the incarnate Son of God as the very communication, reason and intention of God from all eternity, but before long John’s Gospel moves to the language of light and sight, just like Genesis 1.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through Him,
and without Him nothing came to be.
What came to be through Him was life,
and this Life was the Light of the human race;
the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
And at the culmination of the prologue we hear this:
And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we saw His glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.
What we see in the manger is the glory of God – ‘light from light; true God from true God.’ The Creed only says what John’s Gospel says, after all. And both are a reflection on the story. Pay particular attention to the hymns and carols of the season – light, radiance, and glory are everywhere. We are suffused with light.
We are here so that we do not forget that. Jesus comes into the darkness – by that I mean not the close and holy darkness of this winter night; I mean the darkness of sin, that darkness which struggles against the light. Darkness is probably our most important metaphor for the world’s fallen and erroneous ways. That darkness is real, and we should not forget Berlin and Aleppo, the hungry and despairing who surround us, and our persecuted Christian brothers and sisters. But on Christmas no more detail is necessary, for the point of this great feast is that the light shines in the darkness.
It is an encouraging, indeed saving, reminder. We all have our corners of darkness, our encounters with it. And we all know the tendency to let the darkness have too much power. We all know fear and discouragement; we all know our sins. The darkness can overcome us; it wants to overcome us. The darkness wants us to think that it will win; that it has the last word. But, says John, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The Baby in the manger wins in the end.
That’s the truth that encounters us at Christmas; that is the truth that we see if we open our eyes.
By all means, listen. The word, the story, the music are important, for God comes to us through them. But look and see. See with Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. See with your mind’s eye, but see also the manifestations of the light of Christ all around you in the Church, its Sacraments, its charity and moral teaching, and in your brothers and sisters. Seeing is believing, as the saying goes.
God has revealed himself. He has become visible to draw us to love what we cannot see. And if you leave this church only a little encouraged by remembering that the light shines in the darkness and that the darkness will not prevail, you will have made a good start.