The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. A homily for Midnight Mass.

24 12 2011

Readings: Isaiah 9:2,6-7  John 1:1-14

Since my early teens, I’ve been a fan of the American painter Edward Hopper. Lots of you will have seen his work in innumerable prints and reproductions. His most famous painting is called Nighthawks. It’s the one where you can see a couple enjoying a cup of coffee through the expansive window of an all-night cafe. Most of Hopper’s work is either in private collections or in the Whitney Museum of modern Art in New York. I thought it would be a long time, if ever, before I ever got to see the paintings in the flesh; or should I say in the canvas. But in the autumn of 2004, Tate Modern put on a major exhibition of Hopper’s work. And so finally I got to see the works I had admired for so long in reproduction, as they really were.

It was a memorable visit. Several things struck me about the paintings, that you could only see by seeing them up close.  I’d heard it said and read it many times that Hopper was a poor draughtsman.  I’d always resisted that idea. But seeing the canvases, I could deny it no longer. His drawing was definitely poor at times.

On the other hand, the strength of his composition was all the more apparent. But most striking of all was something that reproductions had hidden away. It was to do with Hopper’s treatment of darkness and light.

Lots of Hopper’s compositions have this dark, foreboding space within them. Those are often contrasted with the brilliance of the daylight in the East Coast of America where he lived and worked. When you see these paintings as a poster or in a book, the dark colours look solid and impenetrable and the light at its most brilliant is nothing more than the whiteness of the paper on which the image is printed. But when you see Hopper’s original canvases, something startling is there before you: Hopper’s darks are thin. The blacks, blues and greys that look so solid when reproduced, are just layers of thin turpentine washes. It’s as if they are veils through which the light might break through at any moment.

And the light.

The light is solid, thick with heavy, impasto paint. Even where it only touches the edge of a doorframe, the corner of a wall, it is a solid, tangible, real presence. It literally reaches off the flat surface and out into space. It extends out of the imagined world of Hopper’s pictures and into the reality of the viewer.

Those pictures that had seemed for so long to me to be about the proximity and presence of darkness, seemed suddenly to be about the overwhelming reality of light.

Light and darkness are of course real things in our experience. And they are real things that Hopper is representing in his paintings. But I think these paintings, just like our readings today, are about more than just sunlight and shadow. Light and darkness are metaphors for our human experience. They stand for hope and despair. And so often, it seems to us in our daily lives and in the world around us that it is the darkness that is real and solid and the light that is a thin illusion.

That is how the Judaeans living in exile in Babylon felt. And it is how the Jewish people living under the Roman occupation felt. These are the realities of darkness that our readings address today. But they have a wider vision too. They speak to every human person and society in every place and time.

The darkness is all around us and the darkness penetrates our being: the darkness of despair is within us. It seems to us more real, more present than the light of hope. That seems to us, especially if we find ourselves in the grip of that terrible illness of depression, like a faraway illusion, a vain yearning. The darkness can feel overwhelming. Hope can evaporate. Even the smoldering wick is eventually dim and cold.

But it is the darkness that is an illusion. It is the veil that hides the deeper and more real reality of Eternity. And in our readings tonight, we are reminded that the Real has broken through. The veil has been ripped open and shown up the darkness for what it is.

The brilliance of God’s love has broken through the darkness of human cruelty and the bitterness of despair. And so it is that great light, and not darkness, which is more real. There is nothing in our lives, our world, our universe that is so bleak, so dark, that it cannot be transformed if we open our eyes to the reality of God’s love.

We do not have to do escape from the darkness by our own efforts before we can see it. The light comes to us in the midst of our darkness. It shines among us. It shines on us and reveals that tarnished as we may be, we are made to reflect it. Because the light comes to us as one of us. We see the light of the eternal God in a human face.

He didn’t appear in the brilliant glory of a Roman emperor, or a Judaean monarch. His appearing showed up those fake lights for what they were: the deepest darkness. The brilliance of God’s glory illuminated our most fragile humanity. He came to us as a baby, born to refugee parents in desperate poverty.

And so here, where the darkness seems deepest, most threatening, most ready to overwhelm us, here is where the light is shown to be most real, most present. Here is where the brilliance of the deeper reality of heaven breaks through the thin veil of darkness. And all the blinding glory of heaven’s appearing to shepherds on a hillside is but a faint reflection of the Great Light that those same shepherds saw when they encountered the newborn baby tenderly wrapped and laid in a feed trough.

Just like the thick presence of light broke into my consciousness when I saw those Hopper paintings in the flesh, so we encounter the eternal reality of God in the flesh in Jesus – born in Bethlehem, living in Nazareth, dying and rising in Jerusalem. What has been mere reproduction, poor copy, faint echo, pale reflection in the words of prophets, recorded on scrolls, recited in religious ritual is now before us: living, breathing, dying, rising.

God. Is. With. Us.

—–

But that was all long ago.

The exhibition is over. The paintings have been taken down, packed away, shipped back to the place from which they came. I must rely once again on reproduction and memory.

And what of Christ’s advent? What of God’s coming into the world? Joseph and Mary, shepherds and magi encountered his real presence. They could see him, smell him, hear his breathing, touch his delicate skin. Are we to live only with that scene’s reproduction in the words of evangelists and imaginations of artists? Are we to live only with the handed down memories of others? Or can we too know the Real Presence of that Great Light in the midst of our darkness too?

We can.

We can know that light as a living presence, as the true reality in our lives each day. For he lives still.

The Great Light has shone in the darkness, and though it did its utmost to extinguish it, the darkness could not overcome it. Even the grave could not extinguish him. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. We look for Christ’s coming in future days.

But we look for his coming today. We look for his coming in our hearts, by faith. And we look for his coming among us as we break bread and pour wine.

The Real Presence of God’s unquenchable light is among us. We know it as we see it reflected in each other’s eyes as we gather around the table to which he himself invited us. We ask him again to be born within us and among us tonight:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

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I will try to fix you

5 12 2011

My last post was a look at one of the questions raised by the idea of relational mission: what’s our motivation? What is underlying our desire to befriend people? This is some further musing on the same question. But this time I’m looking at it from another angle – what have the people we have befriended gained from being our friends?

I guess I’m challenging the unspoken assumption that getting to know ‘us’ is a good thing. In all the Church’s talk about mission, it’s taken for granted that our outreach to new people not currently connected to the Church is beneficial for those new people. That’s a theological assumption, I think. But if we no longer believe that we take God to where God is not (which, thankfully, we don’t) what ‘goods’ do we bring? And dare we test empirically how good it really is for people to interact with the Church? For whose benefit is that interaction, really? For those with whom we interact or for ourselves?

We are at least in part motivated I reckon by wanting to see the Church grow. Why? To shore up our own fragile faith by persuading others to share it or by temporarily fending off the decline that so sorely tests our confidence? Sound cynical? It is a bit. If we believe we really have good news it would be selfish to keep it to ourselves. But at the same time we need to recognise that our proselytising tendency can be experienced by others as a threat, particularly if they are of another faith background or are avowedly secular or humanist. While others might be prepared to say that those people are just plain wrong, I am not. We have to share this world. We need to find ways to peacefully co-exist. That means I think according people a high degree of dignity and respect and taking their views seriously. That means putting ourselves in others’ shoes. For me that means being prepared to ask whether, from the perspective of, say, a secular humanist, we might ever be viewed as a positive presence. So again I find myself asking: what ‘goods’ do we bring?

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I was having a conversation recently with someone who used to work in retail. They were telling me the story of a retailer who tried to grow their business by increasing the sale value of each customer interaction. The net result of all their action was that the business stayed exactly the same. Setting out to grow the business resulted in stagnation. The concentration on what the business wanted from the customer interaction did not allow that business to meet its aims. When, instead, they focused on what their customers wanted from their interaction with the business, the business grew.

That’s an anecdote and not careful research. But it does suggest that the Church will fail to achieve its desired growth if that is what it thinks about. Instead it hints that concentrating on the people with whom the Church interacts, considering their needs and desires, will be the only way that growth can happen. It’s only while we’re looking the other way that growth can occur. That’s a pretty bold statement and it’s based on pretty flimsy evidence. But surely that is what we’re all about. No, not bold statements based on flimsy evidence. Though that is something of which we’re often accused! I mean putting others first. We should be seeking to generously strive for the benefit of others as an end – the end – in itself, not merely as a strategy for achieving our organisational goals.

Some will argue, I guess, that wanting the Church to grow is for the benefit of the (capital ‘O’) Other. It’s for the ‘Glory of God’, whatever that means. But the Christian story surely makes clear that God is always out for the benefit of the (lower case ‘o’) other (even if some parts of the Bible are a little more difficult to reconcile with that proposition).

I wonder if you can see what I’m getting at? If you can, you might be able to help me because I’m not quite sure! I think I’m just trying to push the question of motivation all the way – in this instance in non-theological terms. Why? Because I think we have to at least try to imagine what it might be like to encounter a community of people that, to some degree, have an agenda that includes seeing you change. The Church is not unique in that but it’s there. That doesn’t mean it’s all about progress. It might mean – it pretty much does for some church members here in Somerstown, I think – that people with insurmountable mental health or addiction problems at least find a place to belong and to find companionship in the midst of their struggles.

But [finally he gets to the point] what has it meant to the newer members of the Sunday Sanctuary to encounter this fragile community of Christians and become part of it? How has that been good for them?

I haven’t really asked. But others have. These are not desperate or broken people we’re talking about, at least no more desperate or broken than the rest of us. So we haven’t fixed anyone (as if we could). The sense I have is that our new friends, like the rest of us have found a deeper and growing sense of belonging, self-esteem and purpose. And they, like us (these distinctions seem so empty of meaning now) have found new friends. We are all discovering a wider – yes theological – framework in which our being, our living and dying, our meaning and our place in this universe make a bit more sense. For some reading this, of course, that framework is inherently delusional and so cannot be a ‘good’ but I do beg to differ here. We are inhabiting, a little more deeply and in some subtle and unexpected ways, the idea that – to borrow the title of Rob Bell’s book – love wins. We’re aligning our lives as individuals, as families and as a whole community with the idea of that gentle victory, just a little more each week. I think in a tiny, tiny way, that’s making the world a little bit of a better place. That’ll do for me.