Readings: Luke 2:22-40, True Christianity #530 (see below)
See also on Youtube at youtu.be/2GHEan1cVbE
Has anyone heard of “The Comfy?” This is a fun present that my daughter got for her birthday this year. It is basically a big cozy blanket that you can wear like an enormous sweater. It is soft on the outside, and fuzzy on the inside, with a hood and everything, so one feels cocooned and warm wherever they might be. And I know that this year especially, we may well have wrapped ourselves in the fuzzy sweet warmth of Christmas, because we have really needed it. But the lectionary doesn’t usually allow us to stay in the soft sweetness of Christmas for long. It bids us emerge, to wrap our heads around what Jesus’ birth really meant, to the people then and to us now.
For, yes indeed, it is very moving, that God would become so vulnerable for our sake. And we react instinctively to the beauty and vulnerability of babies; then add the notion of someone so powerful, like God, choosing to become so vulnerable for love of us, and Christmas is just made to get us in the feels.
But the story of the incarnation is not just about closeness, not just about solidarity, or God wrapping us up in hug. This is mainly what we, very appropriately, see when we take in the broad view, from a distance. We see God coming down, the stable and manger with the star above, the shepherds on a hill with the angel host in the sky. At Christmas we see the grand sweep of things. I do often preach God’s closeness and presence, because it is such a comfort. But that is not all that God was up to with the incarnation. Closeness and presence are part of a loving response, a very important part, but it is not always the only part.
So, now it time to zoom in a little closer on the incarnation. What exactly does the Christmas message of God’s presence and love tell us? As Simeon prophecies, it won’t all be warm peaceful fuzzies. The baby will grow up, and have a world-changing ministry, one that demonstrates what happens to us when we actually, truly, allow God’s presence into our lives. Simeon describes (as did Mary in her Magnificat) a great revealing, he describes opposition and confrontation, and he describes sacrifice.
And so we see that the incarnation is not only peace and joy. We see that God *does* mean to console us, but that God is not content with a “there there” bandaid kind of consolation that feels nice in the moment but that we can forget the rest of the year. With the incarnation, God intended for us to be given a blueprint for true healing and true transformation, something that gives us lasting consolation. Such true healing, true transformation, often requires something that doesn’t feel peaceful and happy at first: confrontation and change.
Fr. Richard Rohr describes the process..
“When the Scriptures are used maturely, and they become a precursor to meeting the Christ, they proceed in this order:
1. They confront us with a bigger picture than we are used to: God’s kingdom that has the potential to deconstruct our false world views.
2. They then have the power to convert us to an alternative worldview by proclamation, grace, and the sheer attraction of the good, the true and the beautiful (not by shame, guilt or fear).
3. They then console us and bring deep healing as they reconstruct us in a new place with a new mind and heart.”(1)
The Christmas story begins with signaling where the process is going (Peace, goodwill to all people) but then Jesus starts living his life, and that life leads us to the necessary deconstruction and reorganization that needs to occur before the reconstruction of our new selves can happen.
Swedenborg calls this process repentance, reformation and regeneration.
So first: Repentance, Swedenborg calls this the beginning of the church within us.(2) He rightly points out that it is not the same thing as as contrition or confession, which are just words; important words, but still just words. We teach our children to say “I’m sorry” when they have hurt someone, but only as a precursor to actually being sorry, having empathy, for the one who has been hurt. And so repentance might begin with words but it is a larger process than that. It is a process of examining ourselves in the light God’s Bigger Picture, as Rohr puts it, recognizing and admitting our sins, but then also actually starting to act in a new way that no longer hurts others.
Then, reformation: As we act in this new way, that no longer adversely affects others, our selfhood is reorganized by the Lord. Our willingness to act differently creates an opening and we are re-formed little by little. For change cannot always be instantaneous, we all have habits and perspectives that take time to be reshaped and relearned, and this will feel messy, but when we offer our intention and follow-though consistently and faithfully, then God does something beautiful with that offering.
And finally: regeneration, a re-birth. We are all served in some way by our sinful ways and perspectives; we receive ego-safety, praise, power, or any number of perceived benefits. And we will continue to feel the allure of that, even as we repent, even as work to act differently. Sometimes that might mean we feel like we are just going through the motions, but when we do this for the sake of others, it is a good thing. The end point of reformation, though, of the reorganization of our selfhood, is that eventually we will do what is right and good naturally, easily, spontaneously because it is all that want. The peace and joy and consolation flows, because we no longer captive to what serves our lower self.
This is the shape of our spiritual journeys, a shape modeled by Jesus for us, played out over and over again in large and small ways. There are parts of this procedure that feel scary, but this is what faith is, submission to a larger process that we believe in, even when it is not clear how exactly it will play out, but knowing that regeneration, consolation, is on the way if we are have the willingness and the courage to do the work of allowing repentance, and staying present to reformation. Regeneration, in essence, is constantly being born again, and this is how Christmas morning becomes unfettered from the day called December 25th, this is how Christmas becomes available to us any time, and all the time. This is what Jesus came for, not the gift of one day, but a gift for all days.
Even though we have zoomed in on the process, the peace, joy and consolation that we see in the wider view of the Christmas story is definitely still there. It is the undercurrent, it is the engine, it is the endgame, it holds all of the rest in place. But peace, joy and consolation have to come from somewhere to have real meaning in our lives, and they come from this process.
The book of the prophet Malachi is the final book in the Old Testament, and among its final verses are thus: “See I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” This is what we are left with right before we begin the story of Jesus’ birth. The work of God in us feels both great and terrible. But just because it feels terrible, doesn’t mean that God isn’t present to it, working in and through it. Simeon spoke of falling and rising, and a sword that will pierce Mary’s heart, but he also said “My eyes have seen your salvation” and that was enough for him to feel like he could leave this world in peace. Soon, that salvation would unfold, available to us all:
“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and grace of God was on him.” Amen.
(1) Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent, 85.
(2) Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #510
22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord” ), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” 33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
True Christianity 530
The question then is, How are we to repent? The answer is, we are to do so actively. That is, we are to examine ourselves, recognize and admit to our sins, pray to the Lord, and begin a new life…
…Afterward, if we abstain from one sin or another that we have discovered in ourselves, this is enough to make our repentance real. When we reach this point, we are on the pathway to heaven, because we begin to turn from an earthly person into a spiritual person and to be born anew with the help of the Lord.
Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:26-38, Divine Providence 96:5 (see below)
See also on Youtube at: youtu.be/gS2skIJHw1Y
Today we visit with King David, just after he has defeated the Philistines, brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and settled into his new reign as king. David finally receives a break from war, and turns his mind to how he can glorify the Lord. He decides that it is time to build a temple for God, for the ark still remains in the tabernacle as it always has, essentially in a tent.
David clearly has good intentions. He has been faithful, he has battled hard for the Lord, and surely now the time would be right to erect a monument to God, to place his people’s most cherished possession within a building that reflects its value in earthly terms.
But the Lord sends a message to David via the prophet Nathan, and asks: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? There is much contained within this one sentence of gentle chiding. God draws David away from any grandiose plans he might have had, and reminds him that God has never asked for a grand temple. God has been present through every step of the Israelite’s journeys and will continue with them. That has never been in question. God instead turns the question to David’s purpose and inclination.
Though David has a rest from battle now, throughout the rest of the book of 2 Samuel, he will be plagued with challenges, many of his own making. Part of what makes David such a relatable and beloved character is that he is both flawed and faithful; he is powerfully human. And perhaps this explains the Lord’s response. David will have plenty to contend with in the coming years. Very soon he will greatly displease the Lord by committing adultery with Bathsheba, and deliberately putting her husband in harms way. The Lord knew that David had some very different building he needed to do. David had faith already; what he needed to do was build his own ability to live according to that faith.
Swedenborg writes that a building houses in the word can metaphorically relate to the building of our own willingness and intentionality.(1) David had brought much glory to the Lord already in battle, had brought together the tribes of Israel and made them into a powerful nation. He knew what God had done for him and his people, he knew the truth of God’s power and steadfastness, and he believed in it deeply. But he had not integrated that belief with his actions in a personal way.
In the Word the good that exists with a person is compared to 'a house', and for that reason one who is governed by good is called 'the House of God’.(2)
David wanted to build a literal house for God, which was a fine idea, but he had forgotten about building a house for God out of his life. Even as he ruled, he would often govern by what was best for him, rather than being governed by what was best for others.
And this why it would be David’s son, King Solomon, who would build the temple. David had established himself as a king through war, whereas the name Solomon is derived from the Hebrew word for “peace.” An adversarial mindset cannot build a house in which God can be worshiped. David even delivered Solomon detailed plans for the temple. But goodness and peace and love must build the temple. For love followed-through-on is what builds the house, the structure, the habits, the perspectives, in which God is truly worshipped, not just our ideas about what is good. We build the temple, the temple of our lives, day by day, when we are able to focus on embodying love to those around us, leaving the world just a little better than we found it; this is how our selfhood becomes a house in which God is glorified.
It is tempting to default to a sense that David was not “good enough.” But that is not what it is about. It is not about earning our salvation, brick by brick. It is about recognizing that we are progressively transformed by the steps we take on each of our journeys. When God asked: “Are you the one who would build me a house to live in?” it is not meant to be framed as a rhetorical measurement, but rather as a reflection; did David understand what building God a house would mean? Fr. Richard Rohr writes:
We all tend to aim for the goal instead of the journey itself, but spiritually speaking, how we get there is where we arrive. The journey determines the final destination. If we manipulate our way, we end up with a manipulated, self-made god. If we allow ourselves to be drawn and chosen by love, we might just end up with the real God.(3)
And this why the temple was not important to God, why God never asked for it to be built. To God, the covenant was the thing that was important, and the covenant was just as active and relevant in a tent as in a temple. God was interested in how faithfulness to the covenant might lead each person might bring glory to God in their own hearts, minds and lives.
This will be brought into an even fuller representation by Mary, betrothed to a descendent of David himself, many hundreds of years later, when her body would actually build a space for God to dwell inside. By this time the temple David had proposed had long been built, and was the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem. Surely the Lord must have been content with that grandest of buildings? But no, this is the point, of course. It is God's intent to dwell with us, personally, in the fullest of possible ways. The Lord does automatically dwell with us, inherently, within our will and our intellect, and the freedom that exists there.(4) This is how we are all images and likeness of the Lord. But God is not content to dwell like a boarder in the guest room, but wishes to dwell as someone who shares the life of the household. The fullness of God’s dwelling with us, the efficacy of it, the realness of it, depends on our response. When God reaches out, what do we do?
This time, Mary’s answer to the question Are you the one to build me a house to live in? was a resounding yes! Her song that follows our reading for today, known as The Magnificat, makes clear that she understood what the coming of the Lord would mean, in her own life, and in the life of the whole world. She said: I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled. None of us will be called to build an actual temple, or to gestate the incarnation of God, but we are called a mystical embodiment of God’s love nonetheless. We all place a plank in our own house of God every time we try to bring some goodness into the world. This is the kind of worship that God cherishes.
God’s question to David really is the most perfect of Advent questions: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? May we receive the question as David, hearing any gentle chiding that we might need to hear, any adjustments to our perspective that need to me made, any follow-through to which we need to commit, any hypocrisy we need to abandon, any stubbornness we need to let go of, any indifference we need to relinquish.
And may we hear also the question as Mary, as one who would say yes, yes to opening our minds wide for the coming of the Lord, yes to how that will stretch and grow our hearts, yes to building a dwelling place for God deep within us, a home where our very life is worship, a house where every moment is praise. Amen.
Photo credit: Felix Mittermeier
Readings: Psalm 139:1-14, John 1:1-11, 14-18, Heaven and Hell #589:2-3 (see below)
See also on Youtube at: https://youtu.be/P47Pkq8lXlU
Our text for today is a beloved advent reading. It reflects some very traditional and meaningful language, particularly prevalent in the gospel of John: darkness and light. Lots the ways that we talk about Advent and Christmas center on darkness and light - Jesus is called the light of the world, we hold candlelight services, we delight in our twinkly Christmas decorations set off majestically by the blackness of night. Not only moths, but we humans are drawn to bright lights, especially set off by dark surroundings. Perhaps this is an evolutionary longing, for at nighttime, we are surrounded by stars in a dark sky.
The gospel of John does not begin with the traditional nativity story. Instead, the author takes us back to the very beginning of the bible, linking the significance of Jesus’ birth to the story of creation, and extending the same language of light and dark in Genesis to the coming of the Lord. Lightness and darkness is powerful metaphorical language. And, while during advent we use it in a theological context, this is not the only context in which the words are used, of course. Lightness and darkness is part of our daily experience of the world, and we use those words to describe the world around us, in both useful and harmful ways. To quote the Rev. Dr. Will Gafney: “it is far too easy for us as Americans to hear those words through our history of race and racism. We are taught from a young age that everything light and white is good and everything dark and black is bad. Even when we are not thinking about it, it is in the back of our minds. Race is always in the room for us.”(1)
So I thought we might take some time today expand our awareness of the way culture places a judgment and a burden upon the words darkness and blackness, and how, if we use our theological imaginations, we might excavate something deeper and more meaningful from an exploration of the notion of darkness. In the phrasing of Rev. Howard Thurman, we might come to appreciate “The Luminous Darkness.”
So, I do want to say that employing darkness and light language in a theological way is not wrong. It is actually deeply resonant with the experience of all human beings, simply because of the way our eyes work, biologically. We have all had the experience of being in the literal dark, and not having certain information about our surroundings because we cannot see it - there is not enough light for our eyes to process the information. Then, when some light becomes present, new information appears to our comprehension. It is easy and natural to extend this as a metaphor for both our intellectual and emotional experience, and Swedenborg in particular, does this a lot. Intellectually, we describe coming to understand something as “seeing the light,” or conversely, being in dark as a state of obscurity or of not understanding. And emotionally, the presence of light is deeply comforting. Being in the dark (both physically and mentally) can feel scary. I remember myself as a child, at an age way older than I would have liked to admit it, sleeping with the light on at night because I was so unsettled by the dark. Or how even now, I dread the ending of daylight savings each year because of how it makes 5pm feel like midnight. Light can be such a comfort to us. Just think of how mesmerizing and meditative it is to stare into the dancing fire of a fireplace.
But, there can also be other experiences of darkness, just as there can be other experiences of light. I can additionally recall from childhood, growing up in the country, away from city lights, how spectacular the stars were. The extreme darkness of the night sky delivered forth an unparalleled view of the universe that we inhabit. Here, the light from Philly obscures my view, prevents me from seeing what is really out there in the night sky, prevents me from experiencing the awe and the beauty and the connection that is available in a darker context.
Or consider the fact that many seeds require darkness to germinate. It is fascinating, but the presence of light actually inhibits the production of a chemical that causes germination, that prompts the seed to start growing. Or, another similar example: the womb. We all, each of us, as much as we might fear the dark out here in the world, have had an essential experience of mothering darkness, of soft and safe darkness, the darkness in which we were formed.
So, in as much as some experiences of light and dark might suggest to us certain metaphorical meanings, they cannot necessarily express the whole of spiritual experience. Just as Father/Son religious language elucidates some aspects of God’s nature, it also obscures other aspects; this is just how metaphorical language works. Habit and ritual has led us in one direction in understanding darkness, particularly during Advent, but clearly, there is much more to be excavated from the notion. When Swedenborg talks of correspondences, his particular moniker for the metaphorical and spiritual meaning of words in the bible, he repeatedly says that each word or thing has both a positive and negative correspondence. While we might for the most part associate darkness with obscurity, the examples earlier show that, particularly when coupled with warmth, that darkness can also represent a state of productive readiness.
To quote the Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown:
I am utterly convinced that God is up to something in the pitch black nights of our lives, in the womb of our own souls and being. There is something gossamer and brilliant about the night in God, and in the promises that only come in the dark. We are being born! (2)
When we consider the text from John, we see that he was co-opting the word darkness to describe aspects of the world as he saw it: a world that was in obscurity, a world that didn’t understand, a world that needed help. We are told the darkness did not comprehend the light. Other translations say the darkness did not overcome or overtake the light. Parts of us, parts of all of us, will always be resistant to Jesus’ message of love, will cling to our misunderstandings, will prove that we cannot hear what we are not ready to hear. We all know that information, truth, illumination is not always enough to get through to a resistant heart.
But the light spoke to some. The light continues to speak even now. And so we must ask: what was happening in the darkness to make them ready, to make us ready, for the coming the light? Darkness is not synonymous with nothingness. It is not that God was absent from the world until Jesus’ birth. God has been present with the world from the beginning. And so we can return to the creation story that is suggested by John to see another way of understanding the darkness. In the words of Wil Gafney:
We are afraid of the dark but God is not. Darkness is a creative space to God. Out of darkness God created everything that is, including light.(3) Or in the words of Kelle Brown:
The vast and nurturing embrace of blackness birthed the light. I contend that the dark is where God begins God’s work with and in us. It is but the inside of the chalice where the sacrament of communion with God occurs.(4)
Darkness is not always something to endure or to fight against. Darkness allied with coldness of heart is debilitating and destructive indeed. Darkness allied with stubbornness and self-righteousness is thick and impenetrable. But darkness allied with warmth, darkness as the matrix which makes creation possible, darkness as a precursor and foundation to state of productive readiness, this is darkness that allows us to see what we cannot see in the light. It allows us to see differently, like my childhood starry nights away from the city.
But in the words of Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney once more, “somewhere along the way we were taught to fear the dark, to fear the night, to fear the holy blackness that is the swaddling blanket of creation.” (5) We don’t have to, though. This advent, as we wait in the darkness, and look for the coming of the light, may we know and understand that sometimes the darkness has a holy purpose. If we wish it, the darkness prepares us for whatever our next stage might be. For the word became flesh and dwelt among us. How did the word become flesh? By spending time in the warm productive darkness, the womb of Mary. The light of the world formed in mothering darkness.
Even the darkness will not be dark to you; for the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:12)
1 You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely. 5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. 13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
John 1:1-11, 14-18
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him…14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ ”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
Heaven and Hell #589:2-3
 Every event, or every result, happens in an equilibrium, or happens by one force acting and another allowing itself to be acted upon, or by one force actively flowing in and the other accepting and yielding appropriately.
In the natural world, what acts and reacts is called force or energy, but in the spiritual world what acts and reacts is called life and volition. Life there is a living force and volition is a living energy, and the actual equilibrium is called a state of freedom. This spiritual balance or freedom occurs, then, between the good acting from the one side and the evil reacting from the other, or from the evil acting on the one side and the good reacting from the other.
…The reason the spiritual balance is between good and evil is that all human life has to do with good and evil, and our volition is their recipient vessel.
There is also a balance between what is true and what is false, but this is secondary to the balance between good and evil. The balance between the true and the false is like the balance between light and darkness, whose effect on members of the vegetable kingdom depends on the amount of warmth or cold there is in the light or darkness. You can tell that the light and shade themselves do not accomplish anything, only the warmth they bring, from looking at like amounts of light and darkness in winter and in spring.