Light in the Darkness
Christmas Eve Midnight Mass: 24th December, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkenss — on them light has shone. (Isaiah 9:2)
Our Christmas readings are filled with powerful references to light and dark; a poignant symbol. But we should take care, lest these ancient words of scripture evoke something unintended, and distort the message of the gospels.
A shepherd was grazing his sheep when a passer-by said: 'That's a fine flock of sheep you have. Could I ask you something about them?' 'Of course' said the shepherd. The man said, 'How much would you say your sheep walk each day?' 'Which ones, the white ones or the black ones?' 'The white ones.' 'Well, the white ones walk about four kms a day.' 'And the black ones?' 'The black ones too.' The passer-by looked a bit puzzled.
'And how much grass would you say they eat each day?' 'Which ones, the white or the black?' 'The white ones.' 'Well, the white ones eat about one kilo of grass each day.' 'And the black ones?' 'The black ones too.' The passer-by was intrigued.
'And how much wool would you say they give each year?' 'Which ones, the white or the black?' 'The white ones' 'Well, I'd say the white ones give some two kilos of wool each year at shearing time.' 'And the black ones?' 'The black ones too.'
The passer-by could no longer keep the question to himself. 'May I ask you why you have this strange habit of dividing your sheep into black and white each time you answer one of my questions?' "Well,' said the shepherd, 'that's only natural. The white ones are mine, you see.' 'Ah!' exclaimed the passer-by, 'And the black ones?'
'The black ones are mine too.'
(Anthony deMello, Prayer of the Frog, p.230)
There is something about our human nature, perhaps even our human race, that just cannot help but set up opposing groups or tribes based on simple differences between us: European and Aboriginal, male and female, rich and poor, Christian and non-Christian, straight and gay. As far back as history is able to take us there is evidence of human beings gathering in tribal groups. And sadly all the evidence tells us that more often than not these groups defined themselves by hammering the hell out of an opposing group.
Each group, or especially the dominant group, tends to develop a philosophy that explains and justifies its place of dominance, and usually does this by putting down the others. "Aborigines are drunkards who can't look after their children"; "a woman's place is in the home"; "the poor are lazy, I made my millions through damn hard work — there's no secret, anyone can do it, just get off your backside"; "Jesus is the only way, other faiths are of the devil"; "homosexuality is a sin, it's just not natural, God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve".
Living life in such a dualistic fashion is as foolish as the obsessed shepherd with his black and white sheep. One of my favourite theologians, Paul Tillich in his book The Courage to Be, sees this as an age-old means of coping with the existential angst of life. I will feel less fearful about the uncertainty of life if I create a world of certainty around me — right and wrong, black and white, good and evil. Wars are a much practiced way of dealing with this anxiety at a societal level; the anxiety that my government or my party will loose power seems to justify horrific acts of violence (such as in Syria or South Sudan at present time); but it is just as true at a personal level too. Isn't it school-yard wisdom that the worst gay bashers are often suppressed homosexuals themselves? Putting our anxiety 'out there' somehow anaesthetises us to the pain of living — in the short term at least. But this is the antithesis of faith — it is a construction of false certainty. Life is not black and white, it is exquisitly multicoloured.
Religion should really come with a theological health warning: the scriptures contain powerful metaphors, but think about what they really mean before you use them. If one doesn't bother to look at the Bible as a whole, to do the hard work of theology, and then to add a good dose of common sense, it is easy to build a literalistic, unthinking faith from the scriptures. If we are not careful, religion can be reduced to an epic battle between Good and Evil; blessed Light on one side (my side of course) and the villainous threatening Dark forces out there somewhere. All very "Lord of the Rings" or "The Hobbit" but not the message of Christmas.
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkenss — on them light has shone" (Isaiah 9:2)
The message of Christmas is profoundly different from a black-and-white psuedo-religious excuse for expressing our dominance over others. We celebrate this night the great mystery of the Incarnation. It is not a night of battle, it is a night of birth: the almighty logos, the first-born of all creation, has chosen to give up all power and to enter with humility into the fullness and frailness of human life. This is the true light, this is the light that shines so gently yet irrepressibly in the darkness, embracing it, transforming the fears of emptiness and meaninglessness, generating hope and love.
On Christmas Eve 1513 the Franciscan friar, Fra Giovanni, wrote these beautiful words to Countess Allagia, "I salute you. I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep. There is nothing I can give you which you have not. But there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!"
May your Christmas be a most blessed and colourful one. May your heart and your life be open to those who differ from you and your clan, especially those in need: the poor, the homeless, the sick, the outcast, the stranger at your door. May you look, and may you find the gentle light of the Christ-child as it enters the world this Christmas.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.