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Now is the time of the coming of the light. There are many religious festivals associated with the end of the longest night, and the return of the sun. Or the Son. Yule and Christmas provide us with a wonderful opportunity to explore the meaning of light for us in our spiritual lives today. The address below seeks to help you on that exploration. There is a guided meditation in the middle, where you might wish to focus on the words and join in. The MP3 to download is available by clicking the link above (it may take a couple of minutes to download). Alternatively, the words are set out below:
Well, we made it. The fear that the Mayan people had some strange perception that the world would end this week proved groundless. We still have to pay the credit card bills, we still have to do the washing up. All those things we did in the face of the end of the world now look a little silly.
Of course, it wasn’t the Mayans that said the world would end, it was the modern interpreters. It was a misunderstanding, an attempt to declare a rigid interpretation without bringing the Mayan calendar into a modern context.
If you found a diary belonging to someone that appeared to run up to, say 20 June 2013. Would you automatically assume that was proof the world would end on that day?
No. Thought not.
Yet there was a fear in some parts. People were concerned and genuinely worried that the world would end. We would be here no more.
It’s not a new fear.
This week, on the 21st, last Friday, we experienced the Winter Solstice. Yule. The longest night, and the shortest day.
An ancient festival. A festival for the coming of the light. It’s easy to imagine how it started.
A primitive people would be aware that after the long Summer, after the Harvest, as all the plants began to die away, and the weather got wetter and colder. After all that, it was becoming very apparent that the Sun was appearing less and less in the sky. Night-time was getting longer, and there will, I am sure, have been a very genuine fear that the Sun may disappear forever. That night would take over, a permanent, heat-free darkness in which nothing would grow.
The fear must have been very real. This was a time when people lived directly with nature, with the Earth in all its forms. The idea of a permanent darkness would be terrifying. The end of the world, perhaps.
Yet, someone discovered, probably a clever pagan minister, that so long as you enacted a ritual event at certain point in the year, say every 92 days or so, then you were able to encourage the Sun, or the Moon, or whichever to do your bidding.
The Festival of the Winter Solstice is perhaps part encouragement to the Sun, part celebration of the turning of the year, and part recognition of the importance of dark and sleep, but the overriding necessity for the Sun. For light and heat to keep the world alive.
The rebirth of the Sun. The slow emergence of light once more into our lives. Steadily, stealthily, a return of the Light. Of the power over darkness.
Of course, light can overcome darkness. But darkness can never overcome light. Darkness does not exist – it is but the absence of light.
It is this wonderful welcome to the light that has been the seed for so many religious festivals at this time. One of the oldest, of course, is Yule. The ancient festival of the Winter Solstice itself.
But we also have Hannukah from the Jewish tradition, and the Hindu Diwali.
And, the most prominent here, is of course the Christian festival of Christmas. The coming of the Son. The birth of the Light of the World.
We celebrated our Carols by Candlelight last week, and we brought alive once more the tradition of candlelight. Bringing light to the world.
The lights of Christmas are a strong reminder of the power of the Light. The way in which light, be it candle powered or sunlight, can bring us closer to our God. Closer to the sacred.
Our first reading today, from the Wind in the Willows, although set in the morning on a spring or summer day, still brings for me some of the magic that seems to come from the appearance of the light in the morning.
In that reading, the Rat and the Mole are seeking the presence of Him. The one who seems to make the dream music at the dawn, the one who heralds the new day.
And the two friends are overtaken by an astonishing sense of awe at the dawn. They realise they are in the presence of something sacred. The Mole in particular is very taken. He knows the place as a holy place. And as the light grows and grows, that sense of presence becomes stronger. As the light ‘grew and grew’.
That connection, perhaps, to the Eternal Light. The recognition of the sacred and truthful nature of the light.
That magical feeling when you actually step outside and experience the dawn for yourself. Even at this time of year, to spend a little time focussing on the light as it grows is indescribable.
When you consider that this light is the some one that our ancestors welcomed back at this time of year, you can begin to understand the sense of awe, the joyous celebration, the wonder of the natural world and the realisation of the inter-connected nature of our world.
But the sun always does return. Whether we celebrate, or encourage with ritual, or sit waiting for it. The Sun will always return. The natural rhythm will always bring the sun up in the morning, it will always shorten the nights from late December, and shorten the days from late June. That great ball of fire will just keep on spinning for as long as we are around at least.
However, it is not just the presence of light that makes it sacred. It is the way we experience it, the way we prepare ourselves for it, and in it.
We can all stand in the garden at dawn. We can all light a candle. But these are not necessarily sacred acts. There is more to it than that. The mindful approach to our whereabouts, our actions, our context. It is this that brings us into contact with the Divine. It is the recognition of what we are doing or experiencing that can make it more real.
I’d like now to take a short break in the sermon. An interval perhaps. But, I’d like to try and bring this notion of light a little closer to us all this morning.
What I would like is to take you on a short journey. A short guided meditation.
[Listen to the MP3 for the guided meditation - a meditation in which you visualise yourself filled with light]
Each of us will have reacted differently to that meditation, and I shall not presume to know how it felt to you.
However, I would hope that it has given you a sense of wellbeing, a sense of an inner light, still burning bright within you. Strengthened, cleansed and protected.
This is I hope a way we might understand the difference between seeing light, and experiencing light. Two very different things. To become involved, to connect, to feel an alignment.
That is perhaps a further aspect of the Winter Solstice. We take the opportunity to welcome the light within us, as well as the light without.
And the same must be said, I guess about Christmas.
It is no co-incidence that we celebrate Christmas at this time of year. The early Church leaders will have looked to align the celebration of Jesus’ birth with an existing celebration.
The rights and wrongs of this are now, I suggest, immaterial. They simply are.
The more important point is our approach to the Christmas message.
Christmas is neither time nor season. Christmas is a state of mind.
In our second reading this morning, Earl Holt described Christmas as:
“the promise that our emptiness will be filled, our hunger assuaged and a deep darkness be flooded with light.”
For me, this tells the story that Christmas is something to be experienced. It is a sacred and holy time when light breaks in to the shadows of life. Christmas is a time that can only happen if you are open and ready to accept it into your hearts.
But Earl Holt makes a further point, one on which I believe there is a need to reflect.
He suggests that Christmas cannot be forced.
“Christmas will come, but we cannot make it come”
Like the light, it will always come. Yet it is more than just a tangible or even intangible thing. It is all powerful, all pervading.
Christmas. The promise of hope. The realisation of light, and love and joy in a darkened world.
In the stories and legends of Christmas we have built so many of our heartfelt yearnings for light. For many, the pure, giving life of Jesus is reason enough to open our hearts to love. The birth of Jesus is a recognition and memory that love and light are borne into this world repeatedly.
Yet to combine the ancient mysteries of Solstice with the idea of perfect love in the form of a baby is to create a striking and mesmerising opportunity to reflect, to strengthen and to rekindle hope in ourselves and in the world around us.
The apocalypse never came this week.
But the Sun did return. Despite the current bad weather, we know that the circle of life continues to turn, the Sun is coming back, light is returning to our lives.
And, this week, as we celebrate Christmas, and the legends and stories around it, let us also celebrate the possibility of the return of the light to our hearts. The rebirth and renewal of light in the promise of a child.
Let us be filled with light, and let us carry that light with us to lighten the darkened places.