Christmas Eve • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.
The Greek philosopher Plato, in his dialogue The Republic, described human existence as being like that of prisoners who lived in a cave, chained to the wall for their whole lives. They don’t know they’re living in a cave, any more than fish know that they’re living in water. This is just the way they have always lived and it is all that they know — which is to say, they know nothing of the outside world. They do see, however, shadows on the wall of their cave, before them, cast on that wall by the things that are going on behind and above them outside the cave. The chains do not allow them to turn to see those things going on there behind them — they know only the shadows, and for them, these have become the only reality. They spend much of their time talking about the shadows, developing theories about the shadows,
but without any sense that the shadows are just that — shadows of a reality beyond their capacity to see.
In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates wonders what it would be like for prisoners who have lived like that to be allowed to turn and see the shapes — the real people and things — of which up to that point they have only seen the shadows. Would they even be able to recognize them? And if they were dragged out of the cave into the bright light of the sun, wouldn’t it be kicking and screaming as they clenched their eyes shut like Gilbert Gottfried and said, “What are you trying to do to me?!” Slowly, however, as their eyes adjusted to the light, they might even be able to look up at brightness of the sun and then and only then appreciate how much they had missed in thinking that the shadows were the reality and the light the illusion.
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We are now in a dark time of the year; although the days slowly growing longer since last Friday. And longer they will continue to grow on into the spring, the world not having ended as some thought the Mayans thought it would last Friday. And in this dark time of the year, each year, we celebrate a kind of emergence from the cave. For it is about this time of year long ago that people who walked in darkness saw a great light. Luke the historian gives us all the facts and figures. And I want us to pay close attention to Luke’s account, for as even the pope has recently pointed out in a book on the subject, few stories have gotten as muddled over the years as the account of how Jesus was born.
You will notice that there is no stable mentioned in Luke’s account; although there is a manger, which is to say, a feed trough. But no stable; the image of a stable out back behind the inn — the inn in which there was no room for the Holy Family — that is something supplied apart from the gospel itself. It’s logical, but the gospel itself doesn’t say anything about a stable. And there are other old accounts of the Nativity, such as the Infancy Gospel of James, recording that the place where the Holy Family found shelter, complete with a manger, was not a built up stable, but a natural cave — though a cave used as a place for animals to shelter. And James’s gospel records that that cave — at the moment of the miraculous birth — was full of light.
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So it is, at least according to the Gospel of James, that Jesus was born as a cave man. But he was not like Plato’s cave dwellers, for Plato’s prisoners saw only shadows and were blinded by the light when finally set free; but Jesus no prisoner: he was the light and he came into the cave of his own free will. He came to us in our darkness, at the dark, cold time of the year — and so he comes to us each year in our celebration of his birth, as the light that shines in the darkness — and the darkness can never overcome it. This cave, this cave that is full of light, is no world of shadows, of chains and imprisonment — this is the womb in which was birthed the world of light, and freedom and joy. For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And he is also Light from Light, God from God, True God and True man — not a shadow projected by some other light, not a half-way shadow of the substance of God, but God the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth — so help me God — he is the realest reality there is; though not a thing among other things, but the one through whom all thingswere made.
You likely know the old rebuke that goes, “Have you been living under a rock?” Humanity to a large extent had been living under a rock, or in a cave, until Christ came to lead us out into his light. He did not do it as the philosophers Plato or Socrates would do, pointing out the error of our ways and gesturing us towards the brilliance of the sun. No, he would call us to himself who is the light, who is the sun of righteousness, and the son of God. What is more, he would come to us, bringing his light into the cave itself.
He became a cave man to save all us cave dwellers — it was the only way to get to us, you see. He gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. He came to give us knowledge of reality, the Truth of what really is — the knowledge not just of good and evil which the first Eve gained from the fruit of a tree that she shared with her husband — but the knowledge of the greatest good and its triumph over evil, of God’s love for us in coming to be with us as one of us through Mary, the Second Eve who in doing so helped undo the curse on Adam — Jesus brought us the reality of that light and truth and life, brought it all into the cave to lead us forth into true freedom that is prepared for us as his brothers and sisters.
This is the light of Christmas, shining even in the midst of a dark night — the light of Christmas and of Christ — and we who have walked in darkness have seen it; we who lived in a land of deep darkness — on us light has shined. My beloved sisters and brothers, may you be blessed to live in that light and walk in it all your days. Merry Christmas.+