Merry Christmas! Or, dare I say, happy holidays! The three days immediately following Christmas Day are also major holy days in the Christian year. December 26th commemorates St. Stephen, the Deacon and martyr, whose story is told in the book of Acts. December 27th, today, commemorates St. John the Apostle and Evangelist – evangelist meaning he wrote one of the four Gospel books. And tomorrow, December 28th, is the feast of the Holy Innocents – the children who were executed by the decree of King Herod. So today, we’re noting a sort of double observance: we’re continuing to celebrate Christmas, the birth of our Lord and Savior; and we’re celebrating the “beloved disciple,” John, who wrote five books of the New Testament.
How, you might ask, can we celebrate both of these holidays at the same time? There’s a special theme that links these two days together, which I would like to spend a few minutes looking at with you. This theme is the image of light. We speak of Jesus as “the Light of the World.” We speak of the Church as “a light in the world.” What, exactly, is this light? What does it mean to be light?
What is Light?
First of all, light makes things visible. It casts out the darkness and exposes what is hidden. This is what happens when you light a candle, or turn on a light bulb, or when the sun rises. To say that God is light, however, takes this even further. The beginning of John’s Gospel book (1:4-5) says this about Jesus: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John is saying that God is where life can be found, and thus also the source of our light. So there is a connection he draws between life and light. As we sang earlier, Jesus was “born to give us second birth.” That second birth is the beginning of a new life, and with that, the giving of his light.
This light that John is describing here is righteousness, or holiness. This is an important theme that reoccurs throughout John’s writings. In his first epistle (chapter 1), he wrote:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
This time John is making it much more explicit: light is the righteousness of God; darkness is our sinfulness. We also sang this earlier: “in him there is no darkness at all!” Jesus was born, yes. Jesus became completely human, yes. Nevertheless, Jesus did not give in to sin. In him there is no darkness at all. Or, as John’s Gospel puts it, “the darkness has not overcome” him. If we are to have fellowship with him, if we are to be united with him, there must also be no darkness in us. Now there’s a tall order if ever I heard one!
Thankfully, of course, God has made provisions for this impossible demand. That Son he sent, that Jesus whose birth we’re celebrating, grew up to be a great prophet, a great king, and also a great priest. As our great high priest he offered the ultimate sacrifice to atone for the sins of the whole world. We also sang about this in the Gloria: “Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.” God did this, as John wrote, by the blood of Jesus, which “cleanses us from all sin.” This, I daresay, is the heart of the Gospel: God has provided us with his own Son who made the required sacrifice to atone for our sins, and we are thus cleansed, or forgiven, by his sacrifice. God does not demand that we first get our act together and make ourselves “walk in light” before he’ll deal with us; no, he cleanses us first so that we can walk in righteousness!
Additionally, John pointed out that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” This is his version of St. Paul’s teaching “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Basically, part of receiving the cleansing power of Christ’s blood includes our own recognition of our sin. We have to allow God’s light to shine into our hearts and expose all the sin inside. Throughout Advent we prayed about putting on the “armor of light.” This is what that was all about: opening ourselves before God, allowing his truth to illuminate us, to penetrate deep within, prompting us to confess our sins to him and asking for his forgiveness, absolution, and healing. As John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Think of the classic 12-step program Alcoholics Anonymous – the first step is to admit you have a problem. The 12-step program was created by a clergyman, and he modeled it off the Gospel! In the process of our salvation, the first thing we have to do is admit we have a sin problem.
And of course, even after we become Christians, we continue to sin, and so the Christian life has a continuous element of penitence and confession. We frequently kneel before God beseeching him for forgiveness and absolution, and healing. We don’t do this because we fear he won’t forgive us – John said God “is faithful and just to forgive.” Rather, we do this because we recognize that we frequently sin and must frequently repent. If we make this part of our disciplined Christian life, then the day of judgment will be less fearful for us. As St. Augustine commented on the beginning of John’s first epistle, “the Light does not humble us if we humble ourselves.” He means, if we approach God in humble recognition of our sinfulness, the shining of his light upon us will not cause us embarrassment and shame, because we’ve already confessed those sins to him. Similarly, if we confess our sins to one another, rather than keep them hidden, then we can receive forgiveness and healing from one another sooner. How many priests and pastors have been destroyed because of sexual scandals! If only they had confessed their sins to God and to the Church sooner, they could have been put on the road to healing before those sins got too big to hide.
Jesus is the Light of the World
So that is the idea of light. Moving on to Jesus himself, we declare him to be the light of the world. Actually, Jesus said so himself. In John’s Gospel (8:12), Jesus said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Again, light and life go together. We who follow him, obeying his teaching, copying his example, and seeking union with him, receive new life and the light of righteousness and holiness – that cleansing from sin. We’ve already talked about that part. For Jesus to say that he is the light of the world, though, gives us something rather deep to ponder. He is the light; he is righteousness; he is holy. He is light; he casts out the darkness; he illumines us. When he speaks, he exposes sin. When people behold him, they see perfection. Sometimes I hear people say how much they wish they could have seen Jesus face to face – either by going back in time 2,000 years or by Jesus paying a quick visit today. How exciting that would be! But Jesus is the light. When we see him, we see his perfection, and, by contrast, our sinfulness. Perhaps that’s why Jesus said it was better for him to go away and send us the Holy Spirit. If you spend too much time staring at the light, you go blind. We need the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit to change us from within, to remove our sinfulness. Then we’ll be ready to see Jesus, and be able to behold his face and rejoice in his light. Or, as John put it, “abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28). Again, one of the purposes of the Advent season is to pay special attention to the cleansing of our hearts so that now, in Christmastide, we can rejoice at the arrival of Christ!
You are the light of the world
Finally, the Scriptures also say that we, God’s people, are lights in the world. As we are filled with God’s light, as we are filled with Christ, through the giving of his Holy Spirit, we begin to shine that light to others. Sometimes this concept of being light to the world is described as being missionaries, evangelists, people who proclaim the Gospel to others. This is true; but remember that the basic function of light is to illuminate, to reveal and expose. “Walking in light” means living a holy life. So when we are called to be lights in the world, that means first and foremost that we are to be examples of holiness. We are all called to live in such a way that we embody the truth of the Gospel. That way, when we speak of the Gospel, we speak with integrity. The truth of the Gospel does not rely on our holy living, but the credibility of the Gospel in the eyes of the world is very much dependant on our silent testimony. The Collect for St. John’s Day speaks to this theme when it prays that God may “cast your bright beams of light upon your Church, that it may so walk in the light of your truth, that it may at length attain to the light of everlasting life.” God’s penetrating light, which includes the truth of the Gospel, is primarily about transforming people who walk in darkness into people who walk in light, and thus attain to everlasting life.
So as we observe the arrival of Christ in Bethlehem when he was born all those years ago, we are also invited to observe the arrival of Christ in each of our own hearts. Just as he was the light that came into the world, and could not be overcome by the world, so too has he shone his light into your hearts. Do not permit the darkness to overcome Christ’s light within you. As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians (5:8b-14),
Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Let us pray.
Almighty God, who has given us your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin: Grant that we, being regenerate and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit forever, one God, world without end. Amen.