Photo of the interior of St Salvator’s Chapel (photo by Suny Brockport)
Here’s the text of my homily from last night’s carol service at St Salvator’s Chapel, University of St Andrews.
It was a real privilege to preach at such an event, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I was nervous before hand. Really nervous; my mouth went dry, but such are depths of cassock pockets I had a 1 litre bottle of Volvic (which did contain only the purest H2O) hidden in there from which I took a few swigs before climbing the steps to the pulpit, to deliver my homily, across from Dr Lang, the University’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor.
But once I got up there and began, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen”, I was fine. I was in my element, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Unlike the poor folks at the back of the chapel, for whom the PA system had, unknown to me, died during the second or third reading. Still, some folks back there said that they could hear me as I’d spoken loudly and clearly. Oh, my mother will be proud of me. 🙂
Anyway, here’s my homily / address / reflection:
The Child of Light
If the scriptures had said: “Today, light is born,”
man’s heart would not have leapt.
The idea would not have become a legend
and would not have conquered the world.
They would merely have described a normal physical phenomenon
and would not have fired our imagination-
I mean our soul.
But the light which is born in the dead of winter
has become a child
and the child has become God,
and for twenty centuries our soul has suckled it …
Grumpy old men
I must confess that for the last decade or so I’ve been rather “Bah! Humbug!” about Christmas lights.
Not the Christmas lights that you wrap around the tree that you’ve sawn down, dragged into the living room and jammed into a bucketful of stones.
Those lights are safe, as it were (if they’re not then you should have them checked out by a qualified electrician … as I keep reminding my Mum!)
No, what I mean is, I didn’t mind those lights. You could have them.
What I objected to mostly was the big – in inverted-commas – “American-style” lights: the lights that ordinarily, sane members of the public would drape liberally over their bungalow or detached villa, and so in one fell swoop, and enormous spike on the National Grid, transform their house from Dun Romin into something akin to Las Vegas.
The thing is, I really didn’t understand myself why I was so against them. Other than the obvious reason that I was just getting older and grumpier!
I suspect too that I dressed it up in some kind of pseudo-theological argument: that it detracts from the real meaning of Christmas, that it was too “commercial”.
However, you’ll be pleased to learn that I’m no longer the angry old man of 24 months ago. Something changed in me when I moved back to St Andrews.
When I moved back to Fife, presumably the planets realigned, I became a calmer and happier human being, and trivial matters such as Christmas lights and the subsequent effect that has on climate change just seemed to melt into insignificance.
When I started to unpack this, what I realised is that for the last 12 years I’ve been living in cities (London, Edinburgh and Inverness).
I’ve been living in an environment where the night sky is always orange. There is no proper darkness. There is no real distinction between light and dark. It is always light.
And so these Christmas lights, whether they are hanging from Mr & Mrs Naughtie’s roof or slung across the street outside Marks & Spencer’s, they are just one more set of lights amongst many. In a sense, they’d lost their impact on me, lost their meaning, lost their significance.
Dark night of the soul
When the clocks went back this year I really struggled adjusting to the darkness. Because it really was dark driving back to Anstruther from St Andrews every evening, through the blackness.
It felt cold, and lonely, and dark, and hopeless, and I had no energy. It took me a good two months to even begin to get used to these early, dark evenings.
But then something incredible happened … at the end of our street.
Just as the nights were getting longer, the sun was disappearing over the horizon earlier and earlier, people started to decorate their houses with lights. And it really did lift my spirits.
Because there in the darkness was light. There in the darkness were signs of life, and hope and celebration.
And it suddenly made sense, in a way that simply reading about it in books didn’t, or thinking about the theological imagery on warm summer evenings at theological college.
It suddenly made sense – like an epiphany, but before Advent! – it made sense why this time of year was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus: around midwinter, the time of the winter solstice, when the day is short, and the night long. In the midst of this darkness comes light. Signs of life, and hope and celebration.
The Light of Christ
The prophet Isaiah wrote,
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. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 2 & 6, NRSV)
St John wrote in the opening to his account of the Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (NRSV)
Everything was created through him; nothing – not one thing! – came into being without him. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out. (The Message)
“What came into existence [in Jesus] was Life, and the Life was Light to live by.” Jesus has come to be the light of all people, God living amongst us to show us how to live, how to really live, to live our lives to their full potential. “… The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The starlit darkness
When you hear the word “darkness” what does it conjure up in your mind?
What images do you recall?
What places do you remember?
What feelings does it evoke in you?
Are there any areas of your life that feel are in darkness just now, that you wish could experience the light of Christ, bringing hope and new life?
Just for a moment:
Imagine you are in a house in the country;
all the lights are on, artificial light, electric light.
It’s time to leave;
You collect your coat and say your farewells and step outside.
It’s not like the city – there are no streetlights.
As you step into the darkness everything goes pitch black.
You are dizzy with darkness,
You can’t focus on anything.
You walk hesitantly down the path, feel for the gate and get through it.
Now you stand and wait and look around.
Gradually what seemed pitch black becomes less so.
Slowly, your eyes adjust — now you can make out the shapes of trees and houses, and hills on the horizon.
You feel the ground beneath your feet, solid and firm.
You look up.
Above you is the vast expanse of the heavens.
What at first seemed to be only darkness you now see is starlit and incredibly beautiful.
Galaxies, stars, planets, a crescent moon … this is the starlit darkness.
The breathtaking darkness of God.
The mystery of God.
God is a starlit darkness — breath-taking …
God is a starlit darkness.
(Alternative Worship, Jonny Baker et al)
I want to end with this short prayer from the 17th century saint St Dimitrii of Rostov:
Let us pray:
Come, my Light, and illumine my darkness.
Come, my Life, and revive me from death.
Come, my Physician, and heal my wounds.
Come, Flame of divine love, and burn up the thorns of my sins,
Kindling my heart with the flame of [your] love.
Come, my King, sit upon the throne of my heart and reign there.
For [you] alone [are] my King and my Lord.
Preached at St Salvator’s Chapel, University of St Andrews on Tuesday, 18 December, 2007. Bible passages were: Isaiah 9: 2, 6-7; Luke 1: 26-38; Luke 2:1-7 and Luke 2: 8-20.