1st Sunday after Christmas 2006 • Tobias Haller BSGJust the week before last the world turned a corner. A few days before Christmas something happened that changed the world for everyone. Now, I’m not talking about anything to do with politics, with the Sudan, or the Middle East, with a new Secretary General for the United Nations, or a new Congress about to take up its calendar of business in the new year. I’m talking about something more physical, something measurable that took place in the world, something that would have happened regardless of congress or the United Nations, regardless of the Sudan or the Middle East.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.+
What I’m talking about is this. Just before Christmas, the earth reached a point in its year-long march around the sun, where the angle of the planet’s tilt against the sun’s beams was such that the hours of sunlight, — which had been growing shorter and shorter for us who dwell on the northern half of the world — stopped, turned in their tracks, and began to grow longer again. Imperceptibly at first, but minute by minute, from just before Christmas on until next summer, we will have more and more sunlight every day, day by day. The earth, which until a few days before Christmas had been walking its course around the sun hunched over like a man with his collar up and his coat pulled tight against the wind, the earth, which had been turning its back on the sun, began to turn around, to tilt towards the light.
John the Evangelist wrote, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John tells us, in the prologue to his Gospel, that thoughthelight shines, there are some who do not see it shining. There are some who reject the light or ignore the light, or deny the light. Even though the light of the world was in the world, “the world did not know him.” It is as if the world wanted to continue that long winter of discontent, hunched over, coat pulled up, shivering, cold and miserable, unaware or uncaring that the light was beginning to shine.
The Greek philosopher Plato described the human condition in a similar way. People, he said, were like prisoners in a cave, chained so that all they could see was the wall opposite them. Behind and above them, at the mouth of the cave, was reality and daylight, But all the poor prisoners could see were the shadows cast upon the wall of the cave opposite them. And they were so used to looking at the shadows, that they came to forget that there was another world, a brighter, higher, more substantial world, behind and above them. All that was needed was to turn around to look at the light and life that was there awaiting them, behind and above.
That is what human beings need to do, according to Plato: to turn as surely as the old world itself turns, to turn from the shadows to face the light, the glory of ideal reality. There is a word for this kind of turning: it is called “conversion.” We might also say, repentance. It is turning around to face what before we had denied, rejected, or ignored; to turn away from shadows and face the light. As Plato put it, “Conversion is not giving people eyes, for eyes they already have; it is instead giving them direction, which they have not.”
Plato, of course, was not a Christian. He lived centuries before Christ was born, and never knew the light of Christ, and the possibilities for redemption that Christ would offer. For Plato, it was enough for people simply to turnthemselves around, on their own power, under their own steam. For Plato, all that was needed was for the prisoners to throw off their chains, to stand and turn around.
What Christ offered to the world was different. Christ was not simply a great moral teacher, like Plato, someone who would address the world like an impatient schoolmaster, a disciplinarian of the “Just Say No” school of thought, a lawgiver who would say, “Stand up straight, turn around, and see the light.” People had plenty of experience with such moral teachers, Gentiles and Jews alike had their Plato and their Moses, philosophers and lawgivers and countless moralists who offered their disciples the path of discipline.
But Christ was different, and would do something different. The Evangelist John probably never heard of Plato, but he knew the difference between Moses and Christ: that it was through Moses that the Law came, but that Christ brought grace and truth. Christ knew that people were unable by themselves to help themselves. He knew that wishing doesn’t make it so, and that though the spirit is willing, yet the flesh is weak. The prisoners had come not simply to tolerate their chains, but to enjoy them. They’d become cozy and comfortable in their prison. The prisoners had forgotten that the shadows were shadows, and that there was more to life than the shallow and insubstantial patches flickering and fluttering on the screen. Did I say “screen”? Hmmm. How many people even now are like those cave-dwellers, spending all their time staring at patterns on screens, living virtual lives in virtual reality, instead of actual lives in actual relationship with real, live brothers and sisters face-to-face? Humanity was — and apparently still is — so in love with shadows that it had come to hate,to resent, to deny the light.
So Christ, who is the light, did not simply command us to turn around to see him behind and above us. Instead he came down to us, The Word becoming flesh to dwell among us, pouring his light into our hearts. He came to the prisoners to set them free. As Saint Paul says, “In the fullness of time, God sent ... the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”
When the light of God Incarnate is enkindled in our hearts, we no longer need to turn around, to turn this way or that, in order to see the light. Instead, we can see it shining out of each other, and the light that shines out of each of us can bring light to a darkened world. The light of Christ, enkindled in our hearts, can shine forth in our lives, and put the shadows to flight. The source of light, you see, casts no shadow of itself: the candle flame, the light bulb, whatever it is from which the light comes, casts no shadow, knows no darkness. The darkness can never overcome it. When the light of Christ shines in our hearts, there can be no shadow, no darkness there. When the light of Christ shines in us and through us and out of us, the world can come to see and know the presence of God in Christ, “the true light who enlightens everyone,” a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, cannot, and will not ever overcome it.
Christ is the light of the world, and he has poured his light into our hearts. Bear this light in your hearts, beloved, through what is left of Christmastide this coming week, through the turning of the year ahead and the many years after. As the old world turns toward and away from the light of the sun, may we never turn our faces from the light of the Son of God, and may that light of Christ glow in our hearts, and shine forth in our lives for ever.+