FEATURE — For the “From Figures of Faith” series, St. George News reached out to the Interfaith Council of St. George and asked if they had a message about the holiday season they would like to share with our readers.
The following was submitted by Pastor Joe Doherty of the New Promise Lutheran Church, located at 244 S. Valley View Drive, St. George.
“A Light Shining in the Darkness”
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.
— Isaiah 9:2
In case you were wondering, it is officially winter. I’m not saying that because it was cold this morning but because Friday the 21st was the winter solstice – the longest night and shortest day of the year (for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere) and the official beginning of winter.
This year the winter solstice happened to coincide with a few other interesting astronomical events. First it coincided with a full moon, a coincidence that is referred to as the Long Night Moon. It also coincided with the conjunction of Mercury and Jupiter from our view of the night sky. And, lastly, it also coincided with the Ursid Meteor Shower. In other words, there were shooting stars on that Friday the 21st. Isn’t that interesting?
I think it is interesting, and more than that I think it is gospel. The gospel according to the stars I guess you could say. I know that might seem more pagan than Christian. After all, receiving messages from the heavenly bodies is the realm of astrologists and fortunetellers.
But keep in mind that there are biblical stories in which people discern messages from God based on the heavenly bodies: the Magi, for example, who come to Bethlehem by following a star. But I would also point out that the date of Christmas has more to do with astrology than the Bible.
The Bible offers few clues to the actual date or time of year for Jesus’ birth. There are no recorded celebrations of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels or Acts or even in the church fathers before the third century. What clues the Bible does offer, such as the reference to the shepherds “tending their flocks by night,” would suggest the spring lambing season as opposed to winter.
No, Dec. 25 was not chosen for the celebration of Christ’s nativity for biblical reasons but for astrological and theological reasons. December the 25th was chosen because it was believed to be the winter solstice. What better time to celebrate the Light of the World coming into the world with a message of hope than the darkest night of the year.
That is why, in Advent, we make a big deal of light and darkness, because theologically Advent is about waiting in the darkness in expectation that God’s light will come. So in Advent we light candles as an act of hope in defiance of darkness – not just the literal darkness but all the dark realities of the world that we experience in the form of injustice, oppression, hate, fear, loneliness, despair, shame, rejection and isolation.
In Advent we count down the days to the fulfillment of God’s promise of light, which we experience in the form of restoration, forgiveness, redemption, salvation, healing, reconciliation, justice, mercy, generosity and love. We celebrate the birth of Christ in the darkest season in order to be reminded of who God is; God is one who calls forth light out of darkness.
In my church I used to take the youth of the congregation to Mammoth Cave near Duck Creek, and I would equip the kids with flashlights and lead them to a large cavern near the end of the cave about 400 yards in. And after the kids have had a chance to spelunk a while, I would invite them to sit in a circle and instruct them to turn off their flashlights and experience total darkness.
We don’t often experience total darkness these days, and it is an eerie thing. If you sit for a while in total darkness, your mind will begin to see things: lights that aren’t there, colors and even shapes. It’s as if the eyes, in the absence of any data to report back to the brain, just make stuff up.
But after a few moments, I light one candle and I read this passage from John’s Gospel:
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it
One candle isn’t much. It isn’t even enough light to see the walls of the cavern, but you can see the faces of others in the circle, and your brain is reassured that you are not alone. Eventually I pass around candles to all the kids and as the candles are lit from the single candle, I read this passage from Matthew:
Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven
And I point out that with the additional candles the light in the cavern grows and we can begin to see the walls of the cavern and even see well enough to make our way out of the cave and escape the darkness.
I find this to be a helpful way to illustrate Jesus as the light of the world. We might experience the light of Christ in a bright and powerful way at times, but more often we experience the light of Christ in small things that very often come from people around us: a word of grace, an act of kindness, a feeling of assurance, a reminder that we are loved. These things are the light of Christ shining into the darknesses of the world through those who belong to Christ.
But God will confront darkness with a proclamation of light using anything at his disposal, which is why I find it interesting, theologically interesting, that the shortest day of the year should coincide with a full moon, the alignment of Mercury and Jupiter, and the appearance of shooting stars. It just feels like God is going out of God’s way to remind us not to lose hope and to trust that darkness will not prevail.
Merry Christmas and may the light of Christ shine upon you and through you.
St. George News will continue to add new messages to the “From Figures of Faith” series over the weekend leading up to Christmas Day. For all faith messages, click here.
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