Scripture readings: Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 2:8-12.
Who could have predicted that in 2020 we would have spent so much time apart from each other and from being able to worship in Church during two national lockdowns.
Now, I don’t know about you, but to me lockdown two felt nothing like the first. Outside remained busy with people moving to and fro. And with the changing of seasons; daylight shorter, the nights darker and colder – we could be forgiven for perhaps being a little more gloomy.
But as with many who spend years of their lives lived outdoors, I have learned to embrace the beauty to be found in all times, all weathers, in every season. With no buses running I started walking to work, and frequently became captivated by the interplay of light and colour on the journey of autumn transitioning to winter. The rhythm of nature impresses upon us that there is a time for everything, a time to pause, a time to grow, a time to bear fruit, a time for movement and a time to be still.
At this time of Advent, the darkness of winter is an appropriate allegory of our spiritual journey, of waiting for the light of Jesus Christ to come into the darkness of the world. As the shepherds in our scripture sat in the darkness of night, we can imagine their terror as if from nowhere and quite suddenly ‘the glory of the Lord shone around them’. A light that is not of the sun, or of the moon and stars. A light that signals God’s presence – for God is light, in Him there is no darkness at all.
Light is His presence and so darkness His absence.
In our reading from Exodus, we hear that when Moses came down from the mountain, the place of God’s presence, his face was radiant. Moses would speak upon the mountain with God, their relationship a result of physical presence with each other. The place of encounter becoming a place of transformation. There is no doubt that encountering God changes us, as His glory shines out of Him, so then do we become people that reflect His glory. And Thomas Aquinas said that it was God’s intention for us to reflect His goodness.
So why then does Moses put a veil over his face? This is not because the Isrealites are afraid of seeing God’s glory shining forth from his face, but as Saint Paul writes it is because the radiance fades away. It disappears slowly until he reencounters God’s presence again.
If the Church in our present time has supplanted the mountain as the place of God, are we too in danger, during our time apart, of fading away as lights for Christ’s glory in the darkness of the world? I say not. God promises that He will put the law of Moses in the minds of His people and then one day write it on their hearts. So, if our will to action is driven from our hearts and God’s word is there within them, we will become lights rather than simply reflect His light. We are not what we do, but we become what we are within us.
Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s promises to His people, and so we must leap forward to the manger, to the baby wrapped in cloths.
I rather like Federico Barocci’s painting of the nativity scene because his use of colour and light draws us into contemplating its tenderness, its wonder, and its symbolism. In the painting Mary stands before Jesus who is the source of all its light. Her youthfulness and colour is lit up, with her downward gaze, arms wide and palms open towards her baby in a humble and tender submission. We are reminded of her blessedness, that she said yes to God’s calling upon her life, that she carried the baby Jesus within her. We remember her song, the Magnificat.
As we gaze upon the dark poverty of the manger, the presence of Jesus lying upon straw under the gaze of a donkey and ox, the surprised shepherds arriving through a door with Joseph in the shadows – it points forward to His ministry, the good news, that the Kingdom of heaven has arrived on earth. That the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. That the arrival of Jesus is the Word of God become flesh.
Mary treasured and pondered the events of that night in her heart.
Today our encounters of presence in the little host that we eat as part of the Eucharist are our point of connection to the tenderness of the nativity. Jesus is the gift of life to us all. Do we in this encounter treasure and ponder the events of that night in our hearts. The gift of Jesus’ life given out of love for us, serves to remind us of the preciousness and value of our own.
In the busyness of our lives, the ups and downs of relationship, of bad news and violence whether real or imagined through cinema or our televisions, do we remember our value? Do we remember this gift?
Do we have space in our hearts to love Jesus as He loved us?
Can we say as David did in Psalm 63, that our soul is athirst for God? That our flesh also faints for Him as in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water?
In the pause of lockdown, in the stillness of winter, absence can make the heart long for presence. As relational beings absence truly does make our hearts grow fonder, but we also face the danger of becoming distant and cold.
As Christians it is through the gift of the sacraments that we have these points of certainty. But we must remember that the Holy Spirit was gifted to us at our Baptism and guides us as His presence on our journey. He is the small still voice within our hearts.
The burning flame of encounter is within us. We need only to be still and know that He is God. So though we are more often apart from Church, and from each other, we must keep the flame of relationship alive through conversation, and prayer, thoughtfulness and meditation.
I love these words of poet Mary Ann Browne:
QUENCH not the holy fire
That, from the altar of the heart, would rise
In full and pure desire
Unto its kindred glories in the skies;
Oh! sooner strive, with some cold mist of earth,
To quench the lightning’s flame, that hath in heaven its birth.
Let us in the pause of these times, hear the voice of the angel to the shepherds, to ‘not be afraid.’ Let us not be afraid of our temporary suffering, let us allow the fire to grow within us. Let us glow, radiant with the light of the Holy Spirit. Let us remain hopeful and awake for the coming of Christ.
Let us treasure and ponder all these things in our hearts. Amen.
To see more Poetry by Mary Ann Browne follow this link: https://oac.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt1580100w&brand=oac4&doc.view=entire_text