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Friday, December 25th, 2020

‘Et lux in tenebris lucet’: a Christmas Homily at Mass During the Day

And the light shineth in the darkness . . . and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the Sole-begotten of the Father (John 1: v, xiv).

Today we are declaring with the sacred liturgy that the Light has come into the world. But we have to pause a moment to appreciate what exactly that means. Admittedly, the incandescent light bulb has spoiled us; light comes to us, at least on the surface, so easily. Thus, it is with a certain dullness that we hear St John say Lux in tenebris lucet. However, before the last quarter of the nineteen century, and other than by way of the sun and moon, fire was the way you got light. 

Dear friends, if that is true, then it is Fire in the manger that we worship today.

As you and I hear St John’s prologue and stand before the mystery of the Savior’s birth, we ought to have fiery visions before us—fire as the manifestation of God’s acting might. One thinks of the torch of fire that passed between the two halves of Abraham’s sacrifice; of the fire that razed Sodom and Gomorrah; of Moses before the burnishing bush in the desert (a type of the fruitful virginity of Our Lady); likewise  of the fire that made the foundations of Sinai to shudder; the fire of holocausts and burnt-offerings of the altar; of the fired called down by Elijah and of the chariot that took him out of this life to God; of the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar; of the fiery coal taken from the altar of heaven to purify the lips of Isaiah.            

These are some of the various manifestations of God’s glory in the Old Dispensation. And yet St John has the audacity to say that ‘we saw his glory.’ It would be mad for a man to say that, without a direct prompting from God himself. And yet that is the glory that lay hidden in Bethlehem. 

We might contrast the Evangelist with the Greek tragedians: Empedocles, Euripides, Sophocles. But we should think of Aeschylus (c 525 BC – c 455 BC) especially.—Remember that Prometheus was punished by Zeus for having stolen fire and given it to men. And so it turns out that the childhood advice we receive about not playing with fire is more pregnant and weighty than we imagine. For the pagans, it was dangerous for man to be close to the divine. To see their glory, if we use the language of St John, might well mean harm and destruction.      

Dear friends, Catholics cannot afford to stop at a sentimental appreciation of today’s mystery. Much of what we experience as the (remnants) of a cultural expression of Christmas has its origins in Protestant England. And remember that in the seventeenth century, the Puritans of Massachusetts saw fit to outlaw its observance. And indeed, the pagan philosopher Heraclitus (fl c 500 BC)[1] is a far better witness to the mystery of Christmas than Charles Dickens. It was Heraclitus who, groping after the deepest truths of reality, crudely but nevertheless insightfully saw that reality was alive with a kind of primordial, fundamental fire: that things in the world move and change and shine out like fire; that being itself was untamable and bright and mysterious.     

St John can write that the light shines in the darkness, because St Paul can write, ‘Our God is a consuming fire.’—Which is precisely why the angels had to assuage the fear of the shepherds. But their fear gave place to joy. And so it can be with us. Lux in tenebris lucet. Christ the Savior has dwindled the fire of his Heart so that we might draw near. Not without reason does the Litany of the Sacred Heart contain the title fornax ardens caritatis—‘burning furnace of charity.’ But our joy and security in God increase to the extent that the eyes of faith perceive his glory. 

Thank God, then, that he inspired Mother Church to place this Gospel at the end of every Holy Mass. It is a parting reminder that during each Holy Mass we have walked through fire. 

 


{Art Credit: Jean François Millet (1814-1875), The Flight into Egypt (c 1869); Chicago Art Institute}

[1] “The standard view of Heraclitus’ ontology since Aristotle is that he is a material monist who holds that fire is the  ultimate reality; all things are just manifestations of fire. . . . According to material monism, some kind of matter is the ultimate reality, and any variation in the world consists merely of qualitative or possibly quantitative change in it; for there is only one reality, for instance fire, which can never come into existence or perish, but can only change in its appearances.” Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),  <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/heraclitus/> Accessed 23 December 2020.

[2] Hebrews 12, 29.

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