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Sermons

In the Beginning

August 28, 2011

Bible Reading

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

(Genesis 1:1-5)

This past summer I had the opportunity to visit Ireland for the first time along with my family. While we were there we visited a Neolithic tomb in a place called Newgrange. This tomb is five thousand years old. Just to give you an idea of how old that is, it was built by people we would consider primitive more than three thousand years before the birth of Christ. You can see the tomb from miles away. It appears to be a little hill with a white band at its base that sits on top of a larger hill. But the little hill is actually a grass-covered tomb of stone—stones, some of which weigh over eight hundred pounds. Some of the stones, namely the white ones that make up the lower rim, came from some eighty miles away. The stones are so cleverly fitted together that to this day (and keep in mind that this is Ireland) the tomb does not leak when it rains.

You approach the tomb at Newgrange by foot and stand outside for a time when you get there while the tour guide tells you all sorts of fascinating things, much of which is conjecture because nobody actually knows anything about these people since they lived so long ago. But after the talk, they actually let you walk inside. There is only one little entrance, and the whole huge structure, which must be fifty yards in diameter, houses only a narrow passageway that leads to a tiny burial chamber about forty feet from the door.

The most fascinating thing about the tomb is that it is designed to catch the light of the sun in this rear chamber for just a few minutes, once a year, during the winter solstice. And what is really cool is that the tour guide takes you into the tomb, down the passageway (which is not for the claustrophobic), and into the burial chamber. Then they turn out all the lights (very eerie!) and have it rigged up in such a way that they can recreate the progression of the sun’s light on its way in and out of the chamber on that one important day of the year. The tomb is actually so old that, according to my guidebook, when the winter solstice occurs now, the sunlight is a few inches off because the rotational pattern of the earth has shifted since it was built. After the fake sunlight disappears they turn the lights back on and, in keeping with the local custom, let you out of the tomb and send you back to the gift shop.

Scholars have many theories about why a people would build such an elaborate structure. Some speculate that these people believed they were creating a womblike structure, allowing the sun to fertilize the womb and bring new life to the earth. Others think that the dead were cremated, their ashes placed in the great stone basin that still lies in the tomb, and that when the sunlight would appear once a year, it would take the souls of the dead to the next life. I myself have no idea what the makers of the tomb were trying to accomplish in building Newgrange, but I can tell you one thing. It took these people generations to complete the tomb.

Those who began the project were long dead when their great-grandchildren put the final stone in place. These people labored for years and years, taking time away from hunting, gathering, planting, and all the day-to-day activities that would have been vital to their survival, to build this structure. No one knows exactly why they created this tomb, but it is clear, at least to me, that the people who made this tomb were not making some sort of symbolic structure; they must have believed in the immediate power of their creation. If they believed that the light fertilized the depths of the earth, or that the light was meant to carry the souls of the dead to their next resting place or future incarnation, then I think they believed the light would actually do so. You would only engage in a project of that size and magnitude if you believed in its power.

I don’t think the tomb was a symbol for them. I don’t think the sunlight finding its way into the chamber was for them anything less than a truly cosmic event. The sun’s light did not represent something in the minds of these people; it did something. Its power was real. If it was there to fertilize the earth or carry with it the souls of the dead, then that is exactly what they believed it was doing.

I think we have lost this sense of the holy and mystical in our day. Our sacred spaces are not, in and of themselves, holy, but representative of what is true and powerful and divine. We believe in the power of symbols, but symbols speak about what is holy rather than constitute what is holy. They point to the source of reality, but they are not, in and of themselves, that ultimate reality. We are further removed from a sense of the holy now than they were back when Newgrange was built. What is real to us is what we can experience with our senses—what we can taste, see, hear, smell, and touch. This physical reality can help us be mindful of spiritual reality, but it is not the same thing. The angels on the altar behind me are stone. The Word is written in ink on paper and bound as a book just like other books. The verses, the paint, the carvings, the cross, all of it symbolizes that which we hold to be sacred, but it is not sacred itself, nor is it the source of the sacred. It stands before us as a particularly effective representation.

And those who designed and built this church labored long and hard to create such an effective space. But I know the people who built Newgrange labored longer and harder, and I think they did so because, whereas our church is a holy space because it represents what is holy, their tomb was a holy space because it was a holy space. For us the sunlight falling on the altar corresponds to aspects of the Divine. To them, however they would have understood it, the light on the altar was a direct agent of the Divine.

We are different now. Not wrong, not lost, just, according to the natural course of God’s providence, different. We see and understand and process the sacred in a more removed way. I think the Lord knew this would happen, but in his divine love and wisdom, he created the world in such a way that it would always speak to us, even if now, in our later days, we need a translator to understand what it is he is saying. For us, that translator is Swedenborg. He believed that everything in the natural world corresponded to something in the spiritual one. And in his understanding correspondence is not just a symbol or representation: in some way it constitutes an intimate connection between a natural object and the spiritual truth it seeks to communicate. We may perceive correspondences as merely symbolic, but there is more at work than mere representation.

For example, one of the most accessible correspondences is the link between the sun and the Lord. The way Swedenborg explains it, the sun’s light and heat is not just a convenient metaphor for the wisdom and love of God, it actively affects the world just as God’s love and wisdom actively affect our souls. The sun falls on the earth and warms each seed, even as that seed lies beneath the soil in total darkness. The warmth coaxes it to sprout and reach its way up to the light. Once the sprout reaches the light, a process begins that we call photosynthesis, utilizing the energy of the sun to promote new growth throughout the plant. God’s love functions in much the same way—finding us deep in the midst of ourselves, coaxing us out of the narrow and dark limitations of our self-love into a brighter and more open existence that allows us to love others. As we love and receive love in return, we utilize the energy of that love to grow in spirit.

The power of light in the midst of darkness remains a powerful metaphor for us, but it is more than that. It is a powerful correspondence. We see how the power of light manifests itself in the context of darkness. The way light functions in our physical reality testifies to how God’s light, his love and wisdom, functions within our own spiritual reality. Have you ever turned the lights on at dusk because you are having trouble seeing or reading, but you find that the light isn’t really that helpful yet? You actually have to wait for it to get a little darker before the light can truly illuminate your surroundings. I also notice this with candles. If I light the candles here for a wedding, they seem so small and insignificant if the sun’s light is still shining outside, and so vibrant and bright once the sun has set. The darker it is around you, the brighter even the smallest light appears. This is a physical reality we observe with our physical eyes, and it corresponds to a spiritual reality we can see with our inner eyes.

It is in times of great darkness that we become more aware of God’s love and wisdom at work within us and around us. Our scripture reading is, perhaps, the most dramatic example in the Word of light at work in the midst of darkness:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1:1-5)

In the beginning, there was something—not nothing—but that something was formless and void, roiling and dark, seething with potential but lacking true life. In the beginning the “deep was not barren but pregnant, an emptiness teeming with the promise of life” (Wayne Muller, Sabbath, 35). But it took an act of God. A dramatic act. Not a whisper but a great cry, “Let there be light!” and there was light. And that light shone on the waters, it warmed the face of the deep, it found its place aside the night and began its work of teasing life out of this great mass of earth.

Swedenborg believed that even this, the first great act of creation as expressed in the Word, represents who we are and who we are becoming—or maybe I should say how we are and how we are becoming. He writes, “The six days [of creation], which are successive states, [represent] the regeneration of man . . . as follows. The first state . . . immediately before regeneration . . . is called a ‘void,’ an ‘emptiness,’ a ‘thick darkness.’ And the first motion, which is the Lord’s mercy, is ‘the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters.’” That is to say, God’s mercy is present with us even in our deepest darkness, and it acts in much the way that God acted upon the earth, bringing light to our darkness, wisdom in the midst of our confusion, love in the face of despair. But he goes on:

“The second state is when a distinction is made between those things that are of the Lord, and those which are proper to man. The things which are proper to the Lord are . . . especially knowledges of faith, . . . which are stored up, and are not manifested until the man comes into this state. At the present day this state seldom exists without temptation, misfortune, or sorrow, by which the things of the body and the world, that is, such as are proper to man, are brought into quiescence and as it were die. Thus the things that belong to the external man are separated from those which belong to the internal man.” (Arcana Coelestia 6-8)

Often it is in times of great need, of severe temptation, in times of trial or sorrow, that we most clearly feel the presence of God hovering near us. And God makes his light available to us, a light that guides us forward, even in the midst of our doubt and confusion, leading us toward new growth. We see the darkness for what it is and leave it behind in favor of the light. We leave the dim shadows of our understanding, like the puppets in Plato’s cave, and find ourselves confronting reality, confronting truth, confronting God. It is not a comfortable process. The light can hurt our eyes at first, the day can seem too bright, the solution not yet as appealing as was the problem. But just as our eyes adjust to light, so our souls adjust to the good, and gradually we feel more at ease in the presence of God, daring to love others as we once thought we could only dare to love ourselves.

It can happen because it has happened. It has happened in our world, and it happens in our souls. Wherever you find yourself this morning, whatever your struggle, whatever your doubt, whatever your pain, know that the light shines and the darkness has not and will not overcome it. But sometimes we cannot fully see the light until the darkness is complete. For the people at Newgrange, the sun reached the height of its power on the darkest day of the year. For us it may be that God’s power is most potent and easily recognized in our darkest moments. We need never despair. And so I leave you this morning with these hopeful yet challenging words of John Donne, who wrote,

“He brought light out of darkness, not out of lesser light; he can bring thy summer out of winter, though thou have no spring; though in the ways of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintered and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the Spring, but as the sun at noon.” (John Donne, from a sermon at Saint Paul’s Cathedral)

Rev. Sarah Buteux