December 08, 2002
There appeared a man named John, sent from God. He came as a witness to testify to the light, that all might become believers through him. He was not himself the light; he came only to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (John 1:6-12)
Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali; but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian's defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior's boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:1-7)
A friend of mine once told me that he was taking an adult appreciation course in Italian Renaissance Art. He said that he loved the course, but it had also made him sad. Sad? I asked. "Yes, sad. I spent an entire year in Italy in college. I went to all the great art galleries, saw all the great paintings. And yet, because I didn't know what to look for, I didn't see a thing!"
The issue in Advent isn't a question of whether the Christ is coming. The problem, as today's Gospel reading puts it metaphorically, is that people were unable to see God's advent right before their very eyes. That was the problem then, and it remains the fundamental predicament today. Our culture still, on the whole, does not see life in transcendental terms. Our culture still, in the aggregate, does not experience a divine spark at the core of its being, and does not abide daily with the sense that life here is but a training ground for an immortal journey.
So Advent now becomes an ancient drama about the predicament of our world. It is a timeless mirror held up for our ritual gaze to help us understand our situation here, so that we may live our days more constructively, and make wise spiritual use of our experiences here. The Messiah for whom we search in these days of Advent comes as one not easily recognized. The theology of the church suggests to us that this world will always be in confusion about the divine presence in the world. The very purpose of our life here revolves around our need to make a genuine effort to deepen spiritual perception. Our inability to comprehend fully who the Christ in Christmas is relates not so much to any coy tactics on God's part, but to the limits of our spiritual perception as to how God operates in our lives. It relates to the quality of the light by which we see.
Swedenborg wrote these intriguing words about the nature of human perception:
It is the rational, inner part of the mind that thinks, not the outer. The rational, inner mind dwells in heaven's light, which carries within it intelligence and wisdom from the Lord. The outer aspects of the human mind dwell in the light of this world, which is a light that does not carry within it any intelligence, nor even any life. (Arcana Coelestia #3679.2)
The thinking mind flows into the sight, subject to the state imposed on the eyes by the things being seen--a state that the mind, however, arranges at will. (Soul-Body Interaction #1)
This means that we tend to see what we want or need to see, which ultimately determines the quality of light we choose to abide in as our preferred habitat.
The theology of our church states unequivocally that this world exists in both darkness and light. We all have tremendous temptations to become seduced into darkness, and we all are exposed continually to potent heavenly inducements to merge with the light. Since we must be the captains of our own ship, we can see truth only relative to the extent that we have developed our perceptual capabilities. I believe that as angels, we increasingly approach a state in which we see the Messiah virtually everywhere and in everything. Likewise, there are states of mental and spiritual darkness that border on blindness, and cannot perceive even brilliant spiritual light when in its presence.
Let me share three instances that are occurring right now [in December, 1993] in our world. I have connected them with the powerful truth of Advent: that while the stakes may seem very high at times, and while the darkness of the world can seem overwhelming and utterly demoralizing at times, we are to know that Light has already shined into the darkest, blackest mass of evil that can possibly exist, and has overcome it.
We are assured that this is true eternally; that there is no power that can touch the love of God. It is still a necessary and required part of our spiritual passage to face the darkness in our own lives. But the Light that overcomes all darkness is here for us. Can we recognize the incognito Christ? Here, then, are three Advent reflections on events in our world this week:
Santa Claus really exists in Pumpkintown, South Carolina. The New York Times carried a story about Buddy Cox, a forty-three-year-old environmental scientist who moved with his wife and three daughters to Pumpkintown fifteen years ago seeking the quiet, country living he had known as a child. But he was not prepared for the wretched poverty of the area--especially the sight of poor children without warm clothing, nutritious food . . . or toys at Christmas.
Mr. Cox began his second career as the "Country Santa" when a teacher approached him asking for a donation to buy shoes for a poor little girl named Mary Ann. In the course of the conversation, the teacher mentioned that Mary Ann had come to school the day after Christmas showing off her one present: an already tattered doll. Mr. Cox bought Mary Ann the biggest doll he could find. He knew of another family whose children had no Christmas presents, and he bought gifts for them, too.
Word got around, and over the years teachers, pastors, and friends called him with the names of other needy families. Mr. Cox now has a list that would be the envy of Santa himself. People from all over the region donate toys and money each year. The project has grown so large that he has had to build a thirty foot square building behind his rustic home to store and pack the toys.
Again this Christmas Eve, Mr. Cox and his friends will deliver over $50,000 in toys to more than 1,000 families in the towns tucked away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Cox family does all of this without any formal charitable foundation or governmental organization. He says simply, "It's a magical thing, and it just keeps climbing." [In 2002, the Country Santa will provide over $100,000 in toys to about 2,000 children.-Ed.]
Buddy Cox has heard some criticism. He has had people tell him that he should not be giving handouts, that parents should provide for their own children. To these "Scrooges" Mr. Cox replies: "The kids can't help it. We give the kids hope. We let them know someone cares. We're not able to change their world, but hopefully we're able to touch their hearts, and the light bulb will kick in, and they will do something for mankind later." Light giving light! A positive and warm experience of love during childhood resides deep in the soul, even if forgotten, says Swedenborg, and becomes the seedbed for a desire to make that experience of love grow again in adulthood. Having those "light bulbs kick in," as Mr. Cox put it, is the mystery of love begetting love, of flickering light answering Light.
On Friday, Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk stood side by side in Oslo to receive together, to share together, the Nobel Peace Prize. An enormous amount of pain still exists in South Africa. Few places on this globe exhibit the darkness of the human mind as South Africa does. And though there have been a few incremental steps toward human dignity, the region still seethes with racial distrust, fear, and animosity.
The relevant Advent aspect of Friday's ceremony is that Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk are not friends. They claim to have established a working relationship, but nothing closer than that. Each has sorely struggled to overcome dark suspicions that the other is merely interested in gaining political advantage through the negotiations. Each holds the other responsible in part for some of the hideous violence that has engulfed South Africa since their partnership began.
And yet each man has taken an amazingly courageous step toward peace and meaningful cohabitation for their nation. Their sustained relationship has persisted not only through their own mutual distrust and fear, but also through the scathing criticism of their peers, who accuse them each of accommodation to the enemy. However, it is a truism of statesmanship that you do not make peace with your friends; you make it with your adversaries. A black revolutionary and a scion of the white supremacist order have together, almost alone at times, and against tremendous odds wrenched their torn and bleeding nation onto a new path--one that seems now to lead inevitably to majority rule. In order to do this, each one of these two men has had to submit himself to the Gospel spirit of humility, forgiveness, and hope in the ultimate triumph of light over darkness. Those two men standing together on Friday, shoulder to shoulder, represented one of the greatest Advent stories we could see. The Christ who seeks to be born comes as the light that shatters the darkness of old hatreds, that disperses the darkness of animosities, and that shines out as a vision revealing a way to higher harmony.
We have just been through a wrenching national ordeal in our anguish over the brutal and tragic death of Polly Klaas. I realize that I take a certain risk in speaking of this story at all--for how can this agony be spoken of with any possibility of redemption? Yet I choose to speak of it because I believe it is precisely the depth and intensity of the evil involved that connects this terrible event with what Advent is all about.
The evil that did its work through the mind and heart of Polly Klaas's killer was as poignant an example of darkness as we can experience. It was a darkness that captured the precious treasure of a human soul (that of the killer) and then, as is always the bent of evil, it sought to take another soul.
But it did not succeed in taking a soul; it could only take a body. There is no conviction stronger in my belief system than that Polly's soul is now in safekeeping. But what I want us to take heed of now, in the aftermath of the Polly Klaas kidnapping and murder, is the overpowering force of light that rose up to meet the darkness that threatened our moral and spiritual sphere.
We have learned with horror and anguish about the evil that has tragically come to control this one man. And through that darkness he was able to effect untold pain. But the answering response to the evil in one person came from millions: an answering light of support, hope, friendship, caring, hard work, community of spirit, and above all an affirmation for the beauty and sanctity of life. A light has grown in millions of minds and hearts. It has overwhelmed the darkness, not by way of banishing it, for we must dwell for a time in a plane that includes evil, but by way of exposing it, challenging it, and with the might of millions, resisting it. And the darkness did not overcome that light.
I wish it could be a simple matter of making a light and happy sermon for this Advent week. But in a very profound sense, we cannot truly comprehend the power of the Advent message of light unless we know and respect the reality of darkness.
There appeared a man named John, sent from God. He came as a witness to testify to the light, that all might become believers through him. He was not himself the light; he came only to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.
O Lord, you have come to us as the light of the world. Yet too often we are so busy with the distractions of the world that we do not see your light even when it is right next to us--even when it is shining within our own souls. In the darkness of our world, and in the darkness of our own souls, open our spiritual eyes to see your presence as the true light that enlightens all people. Amen.
Rev. James Lawrence