The Gospel of Luke tells us that:
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who walk in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
During Advent we are reminded of the light of God’s presence. Each Sunday the light has grown brighter as we’ve lit the Advent Candles. And, now, on Christmas Eve the light of God’s love made manifest in Jesus Christ shines brightly in our eyes and in our hearts.
Christmas is a time for remembering and telling stories. We remember Christmas’ past, the good times with family and friends, and we enjoy telling the stories of present day and catching up with each other. But, most importantly, this is the season we remember “the story”, our collective story as people of faith. We remember God’s presence manifest in humble surroundings and in the miracle of the birth of God’s love made flesh in the Christ-child.
Christmas time also provokes the telling of stories inspired by the stories of faith in the Bible. Stories of hope, of peace and goodwill, of love and understanding, of the revelation of God’s presence in ordinary and yet extraordinary ways.
One such tale, from Celtic tradition, tells the story of two men whose farms were next to each other. The men, Jonathon and Thomas, were hard-working honest men who were happily married. Their wives, Catherine and Sarah, were best friends and spent a lot of time together helping each other with their chores and sharing in the joys and sorrows of life. The hardest thing, for Catherine and Sarah, was that their husbands did not get along. Over the years, the men had allowed little irritations and anoyances to magnify and become deeply held resentments.
One winter, the women decided to try and do something about the situation. “Christmas will soon be here”, they said to their husbands. “It is supposed to be the season of peace and goodwill. Surely you can learn to be at peace with each other and stop arguing.”
But the very next day Thomas accused Jonathon of shovelling snow onto his land – and they began to argue. So Catherine and Sarah went to their priest to see if he could help them to find a solution to this problem. Father Kevin was an old and patient man and he listened carefully to what the women told him. Then without a word he got up and went to pay a visit to Jonathon and Thomas.
Father Kevin said to Jonathon and Thomas, “I want you to enter a competition with me on Christmas Eve. The barn, beside my house, will be divided into three equal parts. Between dawn and dusk we will see which of us can fill our part the fullest using anything we like. If either of you wins, you can take all the fruit and vegetables which grow in my garden over the next year. If, I win, you must promise never to argue again, and instead learn to be friends.”
Jonathon and Thomas decided they had nothing to lose so they agreed to the competition. At dawn on Christmas Eve everyone in their village gathered around the barn. And as soon as the sun rose, Jonathon and Thomas began rushing around the village gathering anything they could to fill their parts of the barn – bales of straw, old buckets, sacks of potatoes, and whatever else they could carry which would fill up their space. Father Kevin was nowhere to be seen.
At lunchtime Jonathon and Thomas were still working hard trying to fill their parts of the barn. Father Kevin was still nowhere to be seen. By late afternoon they had both filled their parts of the barn almost to the roof but Father Kevin’s part was still empty. Finally, as the last rays of the sun were fading, Father Kevin came out of his house carrying an unlit candle. He walked into the barn and placed the candle in the middle. Then he said some words that are found in the Bible, in the gospel of John: “The light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.” Then he knelt down and lit the candle. In the darkness of Christmas Eve, its light filled the whole barn, shining right up into the rafters of the roof. Everyone who had gathered around the barn cheered because they realized that Father Kevin had won the competition because he had completely filled the barn with light, there was not a space where the light did not shine. Jonathon and Thomas stepped forward and stood before the candle and shook hands. And from that day forward they were kind and considerate to each other and they became the best of friends.
Light is an important symbol in the stories in the Bible both in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. And, the theme of light plays a central role in our celebration of the Christmas Story each year. Light represents many different things such as: the illumination that enables ordinary people to see and experience the presence of God in our world; the light of the wisdom of our ancestors and of our own lives as people of faith; the light of hope that in the shadows of our lives, then as now, God is present; the light of peace that glows within each one of us when we remember and reflect God’s love made manifest in our lives.
I’ll close with a poem by John Harvey, of the Iona Community in Scotland, entitled “Light to Your People”:
we thank you
that when the world was very dark
to bring light into our darkness.
You came in the night
to bring light into the lives
of Mary and Joseph.
You came to Bethlehem –
then, as now, a very troubled town –
bringing light to all who came to trust you.
You come to us now,
into our lives
and into our world,
bringing light to your people.
We ask you now
to accept this worship that we bring
as we come again to the manger.
Help us see there
the light that will shine for us,
not just at Christmas
but every day of the year.
Thanks be to God, this holy night, and always. Amen