Wednesday, December 25, 2013

How silently the wonderous gift is giv'n

Sermon for Christmas Day, 2013

John’s Gospel is all about light and darkness, both literal and figurative. Today on Christmas we hear “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it”; at Easter the Marys will go to the tomb while it is still dark and then Jesus is raised and it is day. It’s never just about physical darkness or light—it’s always also about spiritual darkness and light. Today is the day we celebrate the light coming into the world in a new way, and darkness being banished.

With that in mind, listen to this quote: "… I believe that God is in me as the sun is in the color and fragrance of the flower, the Light in my darkness, the Voice in my silence."

Any guesses as to who wrote that? It’s Helen Keller. The icon of a woman who knew what it was to live in darkness and silence, but who managed to discover light and her voice. And who knew God as “the light in my darkness, the voice in my silence.” It intrigues me that once she had language, she would no doubt have read the Bible in the King James Version, in which that verse from John’s gospel today is “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”

How can you comprehend what light is if you live in darkness? And yet somehow she did. The light in her darkness was God, and in her darkness she did comprehend what that light was, even before she had words to describe God. I have trouble comprehending how I would be able to recognize God without having heard a single story, or having a single word to describe anything. But it inspires me that she could. That even as we celebrate Jesus born as the Word of God, we realize that words are not necessary to know the Word. That we can leave some of our intellect and education behind and discover God as pure experience, to be comprehended not by our minds but by our hearts and souls.

Last week I read an old sermon by Barbara Crafton, a colleague and friend. I learned from it that Helen Keller knew Philips Brooks, the Episcopal priest and noted preacher who wrote the text of our Christmas Carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” She was a teenager and he an old man when they met, but they corresponded through letters and impressed one another. Barbara wrote:

“Yet Brooks recognized that Helen and he did the same thing. Reaching out of the total darkness of her isolated life, Helen was already touching people's hearts with her courage and noble spirit, already challenging people to look at what could be. She lived in silence. She lived in darkness. But out of her silence the Spirit burst forth with grace and power. And out of her darkness, light shone. This was what Phillips Brooks had dedicated his life to bringing about: Let the people hear of what can be. Let them know what astonishing good can come from God, even in the face of terrible sorrow.

In one of her letters, Helen told Bishop Brooks that she had always known about God, even before she had any words. Even before she could call God anything, she knew God was there. She didn't know what it was. God had no name for her -- nothing had a name for her. She had no concept of a name. But in her darkness and isolation, she knew she was not alone. Someone was with her. She felt God's love. And when she received the gift of language and heard about God, she said she already knew.”

Barbara questioned whether Brooks might have had Helen Keller in mind when he wrote the text of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” because it deals with darkness and silence so compellingly. I did the math of when the hymn was written—it was before he met Helen Keller, so she couldn’t have inspired it—but it’s still an insightful reflection on the darkness and quietness of the gift of the Christ child. Maybe somehow he comprehended what light would mean to someone who lived in darkness; what sound would mean to someone who lived in silence; when he wrote:

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

There are so many ways in which we may be blind and deaf today; and yet God can enter in. God comprehends light and dark; illumines our darkness before we can even find the words to name darkness or light. May this Christmas be a time to comprehend the Gift we have been given: the Word made flesh; whether it comes with silence or loud noises; whether in light or dark, whether in words or in pure experience. Amen.

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