The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
This evening, I am happy to report to you that the earth has once again tilted on its axis. The days are getting longer! There is more light.
To put it mildly, we earthlings count on light: for warmth, photosynthesis, oxygen, all that stuff. Even our bones, buried way inside of us, need sunlight. Did you know that there is currently an epidemic of Vitamin D deficiency, causing brittle bones? We’re indoors all the time, not getting enough sunlight.
We not only need physical light. We need spiritual light, too. Every religion, every culture knows this. Every one of them uses metaphors of shadows and darkness, vision and enlightenment. And every one of them celebrates a festival of light, as we do this night.
Our scriptures say that God is light. They also say that when Jesus was born on this night, he was the light of the world. And then when he grew up, Jesus told his friends You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others.
And so like the rays from this huge star above us, divine light emanates from God’s own being, through Christ and other enlightened souls, into us, and then out from us, so that this world can be a little brighter, kinder, and more just. We both receive and manifest God’s light. This is what religion is supposed to do.
On this Christmas festival of light, then, it might be good to wonder: what sort of light do we seek from God, and what sort of light does the world need from us?
We are living in an extraordinary time, on so many levels. We are going through profound changes in how we communicate, how we affect our environment, how goods are marketed, made, and delivered, how culture and knowledge spread, and even how we think. In this postmodern age, the world is flat; the choices are endless; everything and everyone is nearby. In scope, it is like the historical shifts that took place in the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.
Religion is changing, too. In a recent survey by the very credible Pew Forum, it was found that whether people are religious or not, they are much more open to mystical experience than ever before. More and more people are mixing different beliefs, places of worship, and spiritual practices. Religion has become postmodern.
And so, given this time of social transformation we are living in, I ask again: as people of faith, what sort of light shall we seek, and what sort of light shall we offer to the world?
I believe that we have had enough of religion that tries to put God in a neat little box, denying the presence of God in other faith traditions, or in the hearts of any genuine seeker. We have had enough of religion that is moralistic, obsessing about sexuality in relationships that frighten those who never get close enough to understand them. We have had enough of religion that claims to have all the answers, that runs away from pluralism and mystery.
This kind of religion I’m describing may still be very popular today. In fact, it may even increase as social change accelerates. After all, it offers simplicity and security in complex times. This is not the first time this has happened in history. In every age of significant cultural change, there was a corresponding religious clampdown. And so once again it is time to remember what Jesus also said about light: If the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness.
However, it is heartening to know that in our day, there is another kind of religious light that is emerging. It is not new; in fact, it is ancient. I believe that it is the same light that was manifested in the one who was born this night some 2,000 years ago.
First of all, the religious light that Jesus manifested was not in a tight little box. It came in a very porous container, in fact. Jesus was reverent, but loose. He was influenced by scandalous friends – Gentiles, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, and lepers. He ignored Jewish law when it stood in the way of common sense. Jesus sometimes reminds me of the wife of a very venerable seminary professor who advised the spouses of priests-to-be to always “keep one foot in the church, and keep the other one just a-freewheelin’ out there.”
God doesn’t need our protection. Like Jesus, we can critique our own traditions, even ignore parts of them, and still love them. We can welcome grace that comes from scandalous associations, like Buddhism, hip-hop culture, contemporary philosophy and science, and the Daily Show with John Stewart. If our faith is secure, our religion can be porous, like the home that we live in: familiar and deeply meaningful, but with open doors that let in interesting guests who come and stay awhile, leaving something with us when they go.
Second, Jesus used the stories and beliefs of his religion not as propositional truths, but as mysteries that lead one into God’s presence. An example: ritual purity codes were only useful if they led to purity of heart.
And so we needn’t be so awfully concerned about, for instance, whether it is objectively true that Jesus was sent from heaven to be sacrificed on the cross in order to pay for our sins, but rather where the cross might lead us. That’s the interesting thing. Does it take us to places where we learn self-denial and sacrifice for others; where we learn solidarity with all who suffer; and where our pain can be redeemed? Does the cross somehow lead us to Easter?
Third, Jesus had no interest in a superficial use of religion, as if it were some kind of magic ticket to the afterlife, or a means for propping up our self-image. Religion was, for Jesus, a path of transformation in this lifetime.
And so religious communities that teach people how to pray and meditate, how to do real self-examination, how to struggle through our defenses against God, how to apply the deep truths of scripture to our lives – these become places of authentic spirituality, where lives are transformed.
Finally, the religious light that Jesus manifested was not just about individual salvation or personal enlightenment. God’s light is given to us so that it might move through us, into a public life that overflows with love. This love is to be extravagant and unrealistic, always erring on the side of understanding, patience, reconciliation, generosity, and compassion. It uses the divine eye of love to look not just at personal relationships, but at social conditions, political engagement, how we vote and how we spend our money. You are the light of the world. You are not just a light unto yourselves and to your friends, but to the world.
I think we all can recognize divine light when we see it in people. They shine with goodness. They are secure enough to be porous, flexible. They don’t pretend to know anything about God; instead, they know God. They love and serve the world. This is the sort of light that Jesus manifested.
The world today needs God’s light, you and I need it, just as much as our bones need sunlight. In these days, will the kind of light that Jesus manifested prevail? Will it overcome runaway consumerism and religious fundamentalism? Will it finally triumph in my life, illuminating all my dark corners?
These are the wrong questions. We were never promised that God’s light would overcome the darkness. We are promised that the light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness will never overcome it. Both will continue at once.
We don’t need victory. Because as God’s light flickers - sometimes weakly and sometimes with great luminosity - we learn to trust in its constancy. And this helps us to be unafraid of our own darkness, unafraid of the world’s darkness.
In peace, we can then offer God’s light to the world, not as the solution, but as an alternative. Those who have eyes will see; those who have ears will hear. And the light of Christ will keep shining on.