“A Light Shines in the Darkness”
Rev. M. Elaine Bomford, Affiliate Minister
Walpole Unitarian Church
8 December 2019
"The Inner Spark" by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
The inner essence of the soul, which reflects,
which lives the true spiritual life, must have
absolute inner freedom.
It experiences its freedom, which is life,
through its originality....
The inner spark is the basis of imagination and
This spark must be cherished in its innocence.
The thought expressing the inner self, in its
its greatness and majesty, must be encouraged.
This holy spark must not be quenched....
The uniqueness of the inner soul...is the highest
expression of the seed of divine light,
the light planted for the righteous, from which
will bud and blossom the fruit of the tree of life.
“The Prologue to the Gospel of John” Jesus Seminar translation
In the beginning there was the divine word and wisdom.
The divine word and wisdom was there with God,
and it was what God was.
It was there with God from the beginning.
Everything came to be by means of it;
nothing that exists came to be without its agency.
In it was life,
and this life was the light of humanity.
Light was shining in the darkness,
and darkness did not master it.
Genuine light - the kind that provides light for everyone -
was coming into the world.
Although it was in the world,
and the world came about through its agency,
the world did not recognize it.
It came to its own place, but its own people were not receptive to it.
But to all who did embrace it,
to those who believed in it,
it gave the right to become children of God.
"A Light Shines in the Darkness,"
Sermon by Rev. Elaine Bomford
In this season, we head into the pervasive dark and cold that we know all too well. And at this time, we become aware of our natural longing for light. Creative responses to the darkness abound. Beautiful and intriguing displays of light appear, twinkling beacons in the black of night.
Have you put up any lights in your house? We have a Charlie Brown string of lights edging the porch eaves — how about you? White lights in your windows? I had never seen this beautiful tradition of lights in the windows until I came to New England.
The lights of the grandfather
My grandfather used to put up a grand display of lights and a Christmas town, set up in the front yard of their house on Tularosa Street in El Paso. It was really an impressive display, with Santa and reindeer flying overhead, a train and railroad (of course) and a church that looked a lot like this one, as I recall…very elaborate! People came from all over the city to see it. Every year from about the end of October until December 1 my grandfather would take over the big dining room table to build the Christmas display. One year it was so large, he couldn’t get it out the door once it was assembled and so he had to saw it in half!
An unexpected light
A few years back I lived in Burlington, Vermont. My apartment was up on a hill and I could look down at a road to see traffic as it snaked its way along a park. Just down the road was a concrete company — the Ireland Concrete Company. Every Christmas they would decorate their concrete mixers with lights wound all around the revolving tank. From my place on the hill, I could see these brilliant trucks driving along the road every once in awhile. I would think of the driver in the cab, cruising down the city streets in his luminescent rig. That truck was heading towards the place of good will and hope within each one of us.
The Story of the Nativity plays out in our culture
According to the sequence of events in the Christmas story, Mary and Joseph and the donkey are also on the road now. The star is in the sky, and the Magi have begun their journey. All are converging upon Bethlehem. The story of the nativity of Christ is one which plays out in our culture and our psyches every year. We may be unwilling participants, dragged along that road to Bethlehem with rationality protesting and resenting the expense of time and money. Or we may be co-conspirators, riding the faithful donkey of our yearning for peace and goodwill, breathing in the age-old wisdom and expressing it in songs, in the gifts we carefully choose, the holiday preparations to which we devote our time and love.
There are many roads to Bethlehem, many ways to approach the scene of the advent of light into a world filled with darkness. The well-travelled road of mainstream 20th-century Unitarian Universalism is clearly marked. It goes like this: The story of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem is an overlay of fantasy upon the life of Jesus. At best, the nativity story reveals to us the beautiful truth that every child is sacred. At worst, the Christmas story demeans every woman who can’t accomplish a virgin birth, romanticizes poverty, and obscures the message of a remarkable teacher. In 1949, Dr. Clinton Lee Scott, a Vermont Universalist, said the following in one of his radio talks:
From the radio talk
“All that is known of Jesus is found in the books of the New Testament, written many years after his death. Some of these writings appeared only after the theologians had already taken over doctrines of the pagan religions and were attempting to make Jesus fit into magical patterns....The doctrine of his birth from a virgin was borrowed from other and older religions. Magic and miracles were common to the pagan religions. Even Christmas, so universally celebrated by Christians, was borrowed from the pagan ceremonies of the winter solstice season....When we look beyond and beneath the distortions and the perversions of the gospels, we discover a human Jesus who bears very little likeness to the Christ of the dogmas.... When we turn to the moral leadership of Jesus...we find one of the great teachers of men.” (Universalism in America, Cassara, p. 266-267)
Does this perspective sound familiar? Jesus as a great, inspiring moral teacher….This is comfortable common ground for us. It’s foundational common ground, in our tradition.
What brings us comfort is not always comfortable
Now the thing about religion, to my way of thinking, is that although it brings us comfort, it isn’t necessarily supposed to make us comfortable. Religion sustains us through encounters with the aspects of life we cannot understand. Religion connects us with that which is greater than ourselves. Religion’s parables, myths and proverbs also goad us to go beyond our ego perspectives. If we go to a religious service, and there isn’t anything about it that makes us a little uneasy or gives us something to chew on that is outside of our normal way of looking at things, we might as well have stayed at home.
At one time, the 20th-century UU approach to Bethlehem was truly challenging — there is genuine insight and enrichment to be gained by realizing the humanity of Jesus, and separating the historical man from “distortions and perversions” of the gospel, as Clinton Lee Scott put it. “[Jesus] left to mankind,” Scott commented, “a free and simple way of living, an example of glorious leadership, and the memory of an heroic death.” (Cassara, p. 267)
A clearer vision
At one time, rational insight dispelled the darkness of dogma. We certainly have been moved forward towards a clearer vision through the light of reason. Some folks still haven’t gotten the memo that Jesus was a human being and a Jew, and that in the Christmas story his birth is told in a voice which resonates with ancient myths.
Once we have recognized his humanity, however, and once we have appreciated the beauty of the Rabbi Jesus and the profundity of his teachings apart from the mythic glow which surrounds him, where do we go? We keep singing the Christmas songs and telling the nativity story. We are still on this road to Bethlehem in this season, like it or not. Is this simply a sentimental exercise? Having demythologized Jesus, how can we travel the road to Bethlehem and sing carols in good faith?
Where do you stand?
We can draw upon our Universalist heritage for guidance: “Universalists,” said L. B. Fisher in 1921, “are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move....We are not stationary, nor are we defending any final position....Of course we can always say that we stand for God and man, for Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, for redemption from sin, and for a human race that, in some day yet to be, shall learn to move on in harmony with God. But all these words and phrases take on new meanings, and therefore need new definition, in each succeeding age. Nothing is clearer than the fact that the old definitions do not meet the needs of the new day, or that the old theologies do not function for the new occasions. Our worn phrases are always losing their old meanings, and must forever be finding new meanings in the light of new experiences....No human word ever has reached or ever will reach finality of meaning. Each living age always has defined religion in the light of its own experiences, and all ages to come will do the same.” (Cassara, p. 253-254)
The question, then, is what vision of Christmas may be relevant for each one of us, and relevant for this age in which we live? Taking the Christmas story literally is not, and has never been, the Unitarian Universalist way. On the other hand, we may feel a yearning to move beyond the conventional UU rationalistic approach. Who doesn’t want to believe those shepherds abiding in the fields heard the music of angels singing peace? Anything is possible….The deep, natural, universal human impulse to mark and celebrate the birth of light in the darkness is expressed through the Christmas story. So what aspects of the Bethlehem narrative shine forth in the light of contemporary life?
What meaning does this story have for me?
Every Advent, I ask myself this. What meaning does this story have for me? What meaning can it have for you? Which road to Bethlehem will we travel this season? I believe it is worthwhile for us to open our minds to the transcendent power inherent in Christ’s nativity myth, if our hearts lead us in that direction.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell wrote:
“Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of [humanity] have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. ...Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation....The... [ability] to touch and inspire deep creative centers dwells in the smallest nursery fairy tale - as the flavor of the ocean is contained in a droplet or the whole mystery of life within the egg of a flea. For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.” Campbell says mythological thinking is “...a directing of the mind and heart, by means of profoundly informed figurations, to that ultimate mystery which fills and surrounds all existences.”
The true effect of a myth is not to entertain us, but to energize us.
The Christmas story falls in line with central myths from world cultures. The mythic elements of the story - the journey to Bethlehem, the star, the angels, the virgin birth - these elements were not manufactured. They comprise the timeless mosaic of color through which a transcendent, life-giving light shone into a real time and place. In her book From Bethlehem to Calvary, the theosophist Alice Bailey wrote:
“Many Sons of God, down the ages, have given to humanity a progressively revealing vision of the ‘heights of possibility,’ interpreting God’s Plan...in terms suited to each age and temperament. The uniformity of their life story, the appearance again and again of the Virgin Mother (whose name is frequently a variation of the name Mary), the similarity in detail of the birth story, all indicate to us the constant re-enactment of a truth, so that from its dramatic quality and its repeated happening, God impresses upon the hearts of [humanity] certain great truths which are vital to their salvation.”
The family resemblance
The Christmas story is, indeed, overlaid with so-called “pagan” myths from Egypt & Greece. Buddha’s mother, too, was a virgin according to his birth story, and her name was Maya - akin to Mary. There is a family resemblance in the advent stories of saviours and enlightened beings, just as the message these teachers impart, to love one another and nurture compassion, is essentially the same.
The mind receives and accepts the ethical teachings of Jesus. The psyche is energized by the timeless revelation embodied in the beautiful narrative of his life. When the mythical story and the miracles overshadow his ethical teachings, literalism and oppressive dogma ensue. When the ethical teachings are divorced from the myth, soul-centered, empowering inspiration is snuffed out. Teachings and myth together comprise a motivating, creative faith that touches both heart and mind. This, at least, is the road I am taking into Bethlehem this 21st-century Christmas. See you on the way. AMEN