The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
December 25, 2016
One of the great joys of being a priest is that I can come into the church anytime I want. Often, throughout the day, throughout the week, I’ll stop in here for some time of solitude. When I have a decision to make, or after I’ve been with a very sick person, or before a big celebration like Easter, I come in here for a few moments of quiet with God. This place, this church, has worked its ways into my bones. And I feel that you and I are coating its walls with prayer.
When I come in at night, though, it’s a little bit different. There is just something unsettling about darkness. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know exactly who is here. Perhaps it’s because you lose your sense of direction. Perhaps it’s because I’m scared of the dark.
Be honest with me, you’re a little bit scared of the dark, too, right? Maybe not a lot, but a little bit. It’s why we have night lights and security lights. It’s why we lock our doors at night and why we worry about things that go bump in the night. Darkness is scary. If you’ve ever been in a cave, say the Carlsbad Caverns, when they turn off the lights, it’s terrifying. It feels as if the darkness is almost oppressive, like it’s crawling all over you.
When I walk into this church at night, when the darkness is all around me, I look for one thing. I actually look for that candle [pointing to sanctuary light]. It’s called the sanctuary lamp. In our tradition, we keep that candle lit whenever there is bread and wine that is already blessed in the aumbry. The aumbry is the little box there in which we keep reserved sacrament.
When all the lights are off in the church, I look for that candle because it’s my orientation. It gives me a sense of where I am in the dark. It’s not that I can see the whole church by the light of that candle. It’s that the candle is shining in the darkness, it’s my beacon, it orients me to everything else.
St. John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Our world is a darkened church and the light of Jesus is that little candle. The light of Christ is the beacon by which we orient our lives. The light of Christ does not dispel the darkness, rather it pierces the darkness. The light of Jesus gives us something by which to navigate our lives.
Now, usually when I come in here at dark, it’s because I’ve got to grab something out of the vesting room. Usually my Prayer Book or communion kit or another stole. And sometimes, I’m in a hurry, and that’s when I get arrogant. Sometimes I think that I can see without that little beacon. And that’s when things go wrong. That’s when I misjudge the door handle, that’s when I bang my foot on a pew. But most of all, when I’m in a hurry and when I don’t look for the beacon, that’s when I get scared.
The temptation in this life is to look away from the light, to look away from the candle, to look away from Jesus and try to navigate the world by ourselves. We start walking the wrong way, we run over other people, we lose our sense of direction. We start walking around and around in circles with no purpose. And that’s when we start replacing the light of Christ with all sorts of other beacons. We begin to orient our lives around our money, around our work, around our kids. That’s when things start going off the rails because those other beacons will not show you the way. You will keep stumbling in the dark because you refuse to look for the light. And that’s when we get scared. That’s when we our anxiety and our fear get the best of us, because our mind goes to the world possible situation. In our minds, in the dark, small things begin to cast giant shadows. Don’t tell me you don’t do that, because I do it, too. In the dark, when I’m not looking for Jesus, my mind starts to race with all sorts of horrible and anxious thoughts. Or, as St. John puts it, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
It’s not that Jesus dispels the darkness, is that he pierces the darkness. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
I realize that this is not the Christmas story most of us are used to. We are used to hearing about angels, and shepherds, and mangers, and wise men. But honestly, that story seems foreign to me. I’ve never seen a real manger, I’ve never hung out with a shepherd. But I have seen the darkness. In my ministry, I have visited with children who have cancer; I have held hands with parishioners as they died; I have sat with couples as they divorced; I have been with parishioners as they stood in a courtroom and faced a judge. I have counseled teenagers whose friends have shot themselves. I know what it is to be in the dark. And in my time as a priest, I have seen the light. I have baptized; I have married; I have blessed houses and cars, I have blessed tow trucks and fire trucks. I have been privileged to hold newborn babies. I have rejoiced with parishioners as they told me that they’ve been given the all clear from their oncologist. I have seen just how beautiful the light truly is.
What I have to say to you today is this: do not lose heart. Do not allow yourself to get lost in the darkness. Look for the light, it is always there. It may not be very bright, by its light you may not be able to see everything, but it will always be there. Sometimes as a faint flicker, something as the full force of the rising sun. And whatever you choose to do in this life, orient yourself around this little light. Do not be tempted by your fears, by the shadows of doubt lurking around you. Think only of that little light, shining in the darkness. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. That light is your life. It is a gift. And through that light, through that life, you have been given power to become beloved children of God.