Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Feast of The Presentation of Our Lord

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
The Feast of The Presentation of Our Lord -  Thursday, February 2, 2017

A number of years ago when I was a youth minister, I took a group of youth on a summer mission trip from Charleston, South Carolina, to Lexington, Kentucky.  We stopped along the way in Knoxville, Tennessee and spent the night at Ascension Church.  There had been a severe thunderstorm a few hours before we arrived and the power was out. The summer days were long and then as night fell we settled in with flashlights and a few candles. Emergency lights illumined the corridor outside the classroom where we were sleeping. During the wee hours, the power still out, I got up to go to the bathroom without a flashlight, cleverly thinking that I could prop open the door and achieve enough light from the hallway to see.

The world began to go dark. I glanced back just in time to see that the door stop was slipping.  The only other time I remember utter darkness was during a tour of Mammoth Cave when the guide, having led us sufficiently far into the cave, turned the lights off.  This is not an “Oh, it’s hard to see in this dim light” kind of darkness, but the total absence of light.  Meanwhile back in the bathroom, what was the easiest few steps of entry in the light, as muted as it was, became, upon leaving, a bumbling, stumbling groping around. Standing in what looked just like Mammoth Cave in the dark, which is to say it looked exactly like nothing, I said to myself, “I remember where the door is, I’ll just retrace my steps.” After bumping into walls and doors that I would have sworn were not there a minute before, I finally broke free into the welcomed embrace of the emergency hall lights. Salvation.

We take light so much for granted.  It is at our fingertips with the flip of a switch, press of a button, or turn of a knob.  We organize our days from light to light, pushing back the disorienting darkness.  Light is control, a reassuring connection to the world. Without light, there is no seeing, and in that blindness and helplessness we are momentarily shocked by our dependent creatureliness.Were the world to go dark, chaos would instantly fill the void left by the absent light and we would spend our time groping around, wondering how we might survive.

Because light is so important it makes sense, then, that salvation, light, and glory are closely linked images in the Gospels for Christ and why Luke especially illustrates the spiritual significance of Jesus’ birth with scenes of light shining and glory declared and characters naming this reality in exclamations that celebrate the move from spiritual night to day.  Could there be a more dramatic way to communicate that in Christ’s coming something important has happened in the world?  Luke reintroduces the image in reverse on Good Friday.  The last verse before Jesus dies on the cross; “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole earth until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” The very heavens that sang in joyful light in a star at his birth cry in darkness at his death.

Salvation and light and glory inspire celebration and gratitude; positive words of hope and new life, which indeed they are. Christ has come, but then I am invited to respond, to receive him, and that is where things get interesting.  It would be nice if our souls were as clear about discerning light and dark as our eyes, but they are not.  I have said and continue to say, “yes”, I do indeed want the light of Christ to continue to shine in me more and more. I have said and continue to say “no” - not too much light, thank you, and only where I want it to shine. Within the mystery of the human condition, within my soul and your soul, is the reality that as much as we desire to have the light of Christ shine in us, we also resist and avoid it.  What I experience in my heart as the life that I most deeply desire is the very life that at times I run from and reject.  We invite the light to shine and then it does and then we recoil at all that is illuminated.

It just is not pleasant to be totally exposed, to have the fearful, secret, shame-filled parts of me seen in all their unavoidable reality.  Not only do I find that I venture into the dimly lit bathroom of my soul, but sometimes I close the door myself. So strong is my avoidance of God, and thus myself, that the darkness of isolation is safer than the exposure of the light. The light shining in me is the very reality that reveals my duplicity.   Transformation always burns before it changes us because if we open to being lit up, God shows us to ourselves and invites us to offer the fullest and most intimate gift of our selves – all of us.

Simeon comes to the Holy Family in the Temple as the witness of the joyful coming of God among us and with us in the Christ, but he is not naïve or ignorant about what that means.  The Gospel says, 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

I want the light of God’s love to be warm, reassuring, and safe.  And by those words I really mean I want a trouble-free shortcut to happiness by doing what I am already doing.  Because God loves me better than I love myself, the light of Christ is challenging, but good news that does not bend to my desire for mere selective sight.  Simeon is honest in his description of what this light means.

The light he describes is piercing and penetrating and revealing – and therefore also uncomfortable and unsettling and dangerous and even painful.  That is the nature of light.  It does not narrow, it is not selectively adjustable. The aperture does not close.  It will not let me be God.  I do not control it, but undergo it.  His canticle, together with his words to Mary, forms a unit that names our own inner contradiction, our own simultaneous “yes” and “no”. The falling and rising, the opposition, the exposure of thoughts, the soul-piercing sword are realities within the life of Jesus.

They are also realities within me – to the extent that I participate in the light of conversion.The hope-filled news here is that the Gospel does its work of exposing me in the light of Christ’s love so that I can know and give myself to Christ and my neighbor. Like the sun, I can see the effects of Christ’s light better than the light itself. If I find myself scurrying for the shadows, it is because somewhere light is shining.  Conversion is my willingness to stop and be illumined.Conversion is my willingness to see like Simeon. My eyes have seen your salvation.  

Light has shone on reality.  When the light shines I know and can declare to God that my desire for comfort is not your salvation, my attachment to security is not your salvation.  Our darknesses – be they in caves or bathrooms or the darkness of our own hearts – are to teach us, to show us to ourselves, to orient us to the direction of the light, to beckon us back into glory and salvation.  The invitation is to see what God illuminates, to let the exposing light be a gift that I receive from the heart of a loving and caring God.

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