Homilies by Fr. Han

The Way of the Spirit

 Homily, Pentecost, May 15, 2016

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Troy, Pennsylvania

Fr. Han van den Blink

  1. Once again we have heard the familiar account from the second chapter of Acts about the outpouring of the Spirit on the disciples at the first Pentecost. Reflecting on this passage I was struck how much it tells us about the way the Holy Spirit manifests itself in the world and in our lives. Let me share with you a number of aspects of the Pentecost story that stood out for me.

First of all, the account makes clear that Pentecost did not originate in some kind of intrapsychic experience on the part of the disciples. Neither was it caused by a group delusion or concocted later to explain how the Church got started. There were simply too many witnesses to what happened at the original event.

Second, this unexpected outpouring of the Holy Spirit was experienced by the disciples with their senses, with their bodies. They heard the noise of the wind, they felt it with their bodies, and they were aware, each one of them, of being touched by a firelike flame that empowered them to proclaim the deeds of power that God had accomplished in and through Jesus, to the throngs of pilgrims who had gathered to see what was going on.

Third, and very important for our understanding of the activity of the Holy Spirit in our own lives, they did not see anything. They did not  perceive an apparition, a human or angelic figure, or a ghostly image of any kind. What they experienced was very real but not visible.

Rather what they experienced was an overwhelming sense of Presence. Experiences of the Holy Spirit are seldom as dramatic as the one recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. The Spirit invites rather than imposes. But ever since then experiences of the Spirit have consistently been described as conveying a sense of Presence.

Fourth, the passage in Acts makes clear (2:4) that this outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a gift from God to all his people, to all those who had gathered on that first Pentecost, and by extension, to all of God’s people ever since, including us.

Addressing this point, the Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware, whose writings have been a great help to me, has observed that, “the gift or charism of the Spirit is not conferred only on bishops and clergy but upon each one of the baptized.” He concludes, “All are Spirit bearers, all are –in the proper sense of the word—charismatics.[1]

  1. But there is more, much more to learn about the way of the Spirit from the account of that first Pentecost. The text, for example, goes on to talk about two other gifts of the Spirit namely its promotion of unity and its appreciation of diversity. It goes without saying that finding unity in diversity is a particular challenge in our polarized time.

 Acts 2:1 refers to the unity that existed among the disciples, “They were all with one accord (hómou) in the same place (èpi tò aùtó) ” but also implies their appreciation of diversity when they felt called to address a group of multilingual Jewish pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from different parts and regions of the Roman Empire in languages of which they had no previous knowledge.

From the very beginning of the Church, Christians have, with the help of the holy Spirit strived for and been able to find unity in diversity. The cultural, linguistic, regional, economic and gender differences that existed among early Christians, such as between men and women, Jews and Gentiles, and the rich and the poor, could be very problematic at times, as the Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul’s letters make abundantly clear.

But these differences were not regarded as insurmountable obstacles to unity for the reason that St. Paul sums up in his letter to the Galatians, “… in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).”

Even in a small parish like ours there are differences that can easily impede unity. Gender and age differences for sure, but also differences in personality styles, life experiences, economic status, and political persuasion, to name a few. Pentecost challenges us to affirm our differences and not to deny them. But it also challenges us to find our unity together in Christ through that same Spirit that descended on the first disciples.

  1. No one owns the Spirit, is able to compel the Spirit or put boundaries on the Spirit. No one can claim to know where the Spirit is and where it is not. The Spirit can never be pinned down that way. For, as Jesus explained to Nicodemus, the Spirit like the wind, “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3:8, NRSV).”

For the Spirit is not human but divine. It is the Spirit of the Son, the crucified Jesus whom God the Father raised from the dead. It is a member of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in whom we live and move and have our being. It is the comforter, the Spirit of truth who is everywhere present and dwells in all things.

And yet, the Holy Spirit remains a hidden Mystery. We can, for example, feel the Spirit’s presence and experience its power but we cannot see its face, because the Spirit always leads us to Christ. Let  me give you two examples, one of my own and one that is related to St. Paul’s when it was threatened with being closed down.

(a) I once experienced this characteristic of the Holy Spirit of pointing us to Christ dramatically when I was at a two day silent retreat whose theme was learning to pray with ikons. I had never done that before and, coming from a Reformed background, was afraid that I might be lured into praying to an idol.

We were shown two ancient ikons to pray with, that is to say to sit for a while in prayerful silence with the ikon. One was a 12th century ikon of the Mary and the Christ child and the other an even older ikon of the Pantokrator Christ, the Ruler of All, a treasured ikon that can still be seen in the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai peninsula.

I remember feeling an unexpected urgency to choose the Pantokrator Christ to pray with, an urgency which I did not at that moment understood, but an urgency that I knew I needed to heed. What followed was an unexpected experience with the risen Christ  that became one of the most transformative experiences of my life.

(b) The very survival of this parish can only be understood as the Spirit leading those who felt strongly that St. Paul’s should not be closed down, as was being planned by the Diocese of Bethlehem at that time. The leadership at St. Paul’s consulted with the incoming Bishop, Mark Dyer, and he supported the decision to remain open. With the intervention of the Holy Spirit and much prayer by the people of St. Paul’s and Bishop Dyer and his staff our parish was saved.

  1. This year’s Pentecost reminds us again of the central role that the Holy Spirit plays in our lives. For it is through the Spirit that we experience God and that we get grounded in Christ. Instead of the Holy Spirit being an shadowy add-on to the Trinity, the Spirit is the way in which the living God, in whom we live and move and have our being in life and in death, reaches out to us.

Beginning with the early Church, experiences of the Spirit have been reported to bring joy, relief from burdens, liberation from stuckness, loss of fear, ability to discern the truth about ourselvers and others, being shown a way where there did not appear to be any way out, and spiritual transformation of our hearts and minds.

It is the Spirit who is everywhere present, at our birth, during our life, when we die, and after our earthly life has ended. During the Eucharist it is the same Holy Spirit that we pray will be sent by God to sanctify the Body and Blood of his Son, “to become the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him (BCP, 363)”. It is in the unity of that same Spirit that we kneel before the altar as brothers and sisters in Christ, and  consume the Blessed Sacrament.

Without the Spirit our faith all too easily becomes a matter of head knowledge. Without the Spirit the Christian faith can end up as into a spiritually irrelevant ideology that may make rational sense but not open our hearts to the Spirit. But with the Spirit we can regain our footing, and always start anew. With the Spirit we become hopeful again, experience life as meaningful and view our brothers and sisters as necessary companions on our journey.

No one has expressed better what I am trying to say here than Ignatius IV (1920-2012), Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. Not long before he died he wrote the following on the Holy Spirit:

Without the Spirit, God is far away, Christ belongs to the past, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is a mere organization, Authority takes the form of domination, Mission is turned into propaganda, Worship is reduced to bare recollection, and Christian action becomes the morality of a slave.

 But in the Spirit, God is near, the risen Christ is present with us here and now, the Gospel is the power of life, the Church signifies Trinitarian communion, Authority means liberating service, Mission is an expression of Pentecost, the liturgy is a making present of both past and future, and human action is divinized.[1]

Let us pray: Come, Holy Spirit, visit the hearts of your faithful people and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your breath and we shall be created, and you shall renwe the face of the earth.  Amen.

[1] The Orthodox Way Revised Edition (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), p. 94.

[2] Translated by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware for his 2007 Holy Spirit Lecture at Duquesne University.

 

Being Reconciled with God through Christ

 Homily, Lent 4, March 6, 2016

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Troy, PA

Fr. Han van den Blink

  1. Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent. In our journey through Lent we are now halfway between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Lent 4 has traditionally been called Laetare (Rejoice!) Sunday. Laetare Sunday has traditionally been observed as a break from strict Lenten disciplines like fasting. I am telling you this because I thought that you would appreciate knowing that you can eat your cake and cookies today without feeling guilty!

And now to the theme of this homily which is “Being reconciled with God through Christ”. For this is what 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, the Epistle for today stresses as the main purpose of our faith, the main point of Christian discipleship, and the main reason for spiritual practice and for living as followers of Jesus. That the central purpose of our faith is to be reconciled to God is not what we are used to hearing in our time from fellow Christians, whether they be liberals, evangelicals or fundamentalists.

  1. In order to understand what St. Paul is telling us in this passage, it is necessary to clear up misunderstandings and obstacles that have accumulated around his message over the years. The first obstacle is the NRSV[1] translation itself that you just heard read. And the second obstacle is a widespread misunderstanding of a key Greek word that is used in this passage. Bear with me while I try to explain.

First, the NRSV translation mutes the startling specificity of the New Testament Greek that St. Paul used to get his message across. He did not say “From now on we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we no longer know him in that way (2 Cor. 5:16).”

What he actually wrote is, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh (katà sárka). Even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh; we know him no longer in that way.”  What can block us from understanding the meaning of this passage is our usual understanding of what the word “flesh” (sarx) means. We tend to associate “flesh” with sins of the body, especially those involving sex, greed, gluttony, addictions, and so forth.

But this is not what St. Paul meant by “flesh”. To him the word “flesh” summarized the standards of our fallen world. Standards and values that we are used to, that we willy nilly have internalized and made our own and seldom question. The current political scene gives us plenty of examples to illustrate how easily people can put their faith aside when emotions rule their behavior or it is politically expedient to do so.

In this passage from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul is stressing the importance of looking at what is happening in our lives and in what is happening in our society no longer from the perspective of our fallen world, but from the point of view of Christ.

Fr. Martin Smith, who was very helpful to me when I was in the process of being ordained to the priesthood, succinctly summarized this radical change of perspective that St. Paul is talking about as follows, “To have the mind of Christ is to observe, to watch and pray, to know differently, to be aware of the conflict between the ways of God and the complex of fallen human attitudes and perceptions which Paul called ‘the flesh’.”[2]

In other words, to live by the standards of this world does not get us anywhere. Elsewhere St. Paul uses even stronger language to get this point across, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit [of Christ] is life and peace (Romans 8:6).”

Immediately following his statement that “From now on … we regard no one according to the flesh [according to worldly standards], our patron saint writes, “So that if anyone is in Christ, that human being (literally “that one”) is a new creation. The old things have passed away; see, that person has become new (2 Cor. 5: 17).” In this glorious phrase he tells us, from his own experience, that acquiring the mind of Christ not only helps us discern more truthfully what is going on in us and around us but actually transforms us!

  1. In closing let me draw a few conclusions from this powerful passage for our life as members of this parish. First of all, having sinned, no matter how grievously, is not an obstacle to being reconciled with God. This is the whole point of today’s lectionary Gospel, the Parable of the Prodigal Son again (Luke 15). God is a God of mercy who seeks to restore of our broken relationships with him and no matter how far we have fallen, the Father is waiting for us to repent, to acknowledge our mistakes and return home to his embrace.

Second, as receivers of this divine gift we are expected to spread the message of reconciliation to others. We are expected to share the gift of reconciliation with others. Others in our marriages. Others in our families. Others in our work settings. Others in politics. Others we have to deal with regularly regardless of the circumstances in which we may find ourselves.

And others in this parish as well. We are not expected to like everyone either here or elsewhere. We are not expected to be friends with everyone. But we are is expected to see every man and woman we encounter as a brother and sister in Christ. and we are expected to be reconciled, to actively seek to resolve either outwardly or in our hearts whatever is maintaining the alienation or rupture in our relationships.

And third, what St. Paul wrote has critically important implications for our daily spiritual practice. He urges us to take our spiritual practice a great deal more seriously than we are inclined to do. We are not passive receivers of God’s gracious gift of having our broken relationship with Him mended and restored but need to do our part to open our hearts and minds to the presence of the Holy Spirit.

How do we do this? There are, of course, many ways but one that has been recommended by our spiritual ancestors is to practice purposefully and intentionally the fruit of the Spirit that St. Paul talks about in his letter to the Galatians 5:22: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If my experience and that of countless others is any guide, taking this spiritual practice seriously demands a lot of us.  It is hard work. It is very similar to what I learned flying sailplanes and small power planes. To stay on course requires constant course corrections. Without paying attention and, when necessary, making constant, and sometimes instant, course corrections, it is very easy to drift off track unawares, or to avoid a collision with another airplane.

Then he goes on to remind us that all this is possible because of God who seeks to reconcile us to himself through Christ, that is to say through acquiring the mind of Christ, and who has charged us with the ministry (diakonía) of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18).” And then, to make sure we get the point, he reminds us that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message (tòn logon) of reconciliation to us (2 Cor. 5:19).”

This same applies to our spiritual practice. When you do something that you know to be wrong, or say something that you know to be hurtful or demeaning, or when you become aware of going off track in any away, immediately ask God for forgiveness, make a necessary course correction (which is what repentance basically is), apologize and make amends if necessary, and continue on course

Glory to God whose reconciling and merciful power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.

[1] NRSV stands for New Revised Standard Version

[2] Martin L. Smith,  A Season for the Spirit (Cowley Publications, 1991),  p. 137.

Jesus’ Temptations

Homily, Lent 2, February 21, 2016

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Troy, PA

Fr. Han van den Blink

  1. There is much to learn from last week’s account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness as that is recounted by St. Luke in his Gospel (4:1-13). I decided, therefore, to complete the homily I was working on for the first Sunday in Lent. We all encounter temptations in our lives, familiar temptations as well completely unexpected ones. Mild, run of the mill temptations but also ones that makes our hearts race with fear and excitement.

We are also confronted with temptations on our pilgrimage through Lent, especially if we take seriously a commitment to spend some time sitting in silence before God. For doing so will at some point expose us to worries, fantasies, anxieties, and wayward thoughts and emotions that swirl in our minds and bodies. Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness are important points of reference that can keep us from losing our footing or drifting off track when we are being tempted.

It is important to remember that right after he was baptized by John in the Jordan, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. In other words, immediately after that high point in his spiritual life he was tempted. You may have noticed how often we stumble or slip on a banana peel following an experience of the Holy Spirit in our own lives.

The Greek word translated devil is diabolos, meaning the one who confuses, the one who makes black appear to be white, the one who seduces and gives us all kinds of plausible reasons to stray from the path, such as “everyone does it”, “no one will see or notice what you have done”, “you need to do this if you want to succeed”, “it’s not such a big deal”, “you are only human”, and so on.

It is also important to remember that Jesus decided not to be baptized privately but chose rather to be baptized together with a multitude of men and women who had come to be baptized in the Jordan for the forgiveness of their sins, to regain hope for the future, and to be liberated from all that was weighing them down. In deciding to be baptized with them, Jesus identified himself not with the religious and political elite but with the common folk of his time. Significantly, it was in the course of his choosing to be baptized in this way that he received the blessing of God and the anointing by the Holy Spirit.

There is no doubt that this baptismal experience was transformative for Jesus. It affirmed him in his calling not only to preach the Good News but to be the Good News. The Good News that, to quote from the opening prayer of the Ash Wednesday service, God hates nothing he has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent (BCP, 264).

Jesus must have known that his ministry of healing, teaching, and reconciling was going to be difficult, demanding, and even dangerous. Dangerous, because his actions would inevitably challenge the authority and control of the religious and political principalities and powers of his time. During his forty day retreat in the wilderness, he also must have thought and prayed a lot about how he could best fulfill his commitment to what he was called to do as God’s beloved son.

  1. With that in mind let us take a brief look at the three temptations. They were cunning and carefully crafted attempts by the devil to undermine Jesus, to get him to make a fatal misstep right at the start of his public ministry, and to throw him off course for good. Remember that these temptations occurred at the end of the forty days when Jesus had fasted all that time and was famished. Not surprisingly temptations are at their most powerful, compelling and have the greatest chance of succeeding when we are vulnerable, for whatever reasons, either physically, emotionally or spiritually.

When I was active as a psychologist and headed for a number of years my professional association, we had to discipline colleagues who were accused of having sex with their clients or patients. A large number of these cases showed that, contrary to expectations, the offenders were usually not sexual predators but older, experienced therapists who were isolated, had neglected their relationships with their own families and friends, ignored or denied their own needs for affection and support, were overconfident in their ability to handle whatever would come their way, and for all these reasons were easily tempted to do what they should not have done.

The diabolos framed his first temptation by challenging Jesus on the very blessing that had been conveyed to him at his baptism: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread (4:3).” In other words, “Come on, Jesus, you could do this and easily get yourself something to eat, if you really are the Son of God.”

Note that Jesus did not enter into a conversation with the devil, he did not ask him to explain what he meant. None of that. Jesus’s response was to quote Scripture, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone (4:4).’” We need food to live but we need God even more. With these few words Jesus decisively refused to meet his own needs by exploiting his God-given position as a miracle worker.

The second temptation by the devil must have been even harder to resist. Let me phrase that temptation this way. Do you think, Jesus, that you are going to be able to accomplish much as an itinerant healer and preacher from Nazareth, that podunk town in Galilee? Think of all the good you could do, Jesus, if you had real power and authority, not only in Judea and northern Israel but in the whole inhabited world.

Since I am the one who is able and willing to give you this power and authority, you would, or course, need to acknowledge me as the dominant influence in your ministry life and ministry. Once more Jesus avoids conversing with the devil. Instead he quotes Scripture again, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him (Luke 4:8).”

It seems unnecessary to remind ourselves that in this country and elsewhere, the lust for power, control and dominance has metastasized like a cancer. You see it in politics, where destroying opponents and winning is the main goal, at whatever cost or morally dubious strategy. You see it in economics where people who already own millions scheme to get even more, often at the expense of others without the ability to affect their circumstances for the better.

Money has always been used to influence politics and business deals but what is happening now appears to exceed anything that has happened in the past. But you also see this hunger for power in families, marriages, communities, parishes, dioceses whenever some person or group has the need to win an argument or competition.

The third and final time that the devil tries to tempt Jesus, he takes him to the pinnacle, the very top of the temple in Jerusalem, the real center of religious and political power. Reminding him again of his divine Sonship, the devil suggests that Jesus throw himself down from the top, all the while while reassuring him that God will, of course, command his angels to protect him by bearing him up in their hands so that he will not even dash his foot against a stone (4:9-11).”

In other words, there is nothing to worry about, Jesus, if you do this, and imagine what you will gain! Everyone will know you and hear of you. Everyone will be convinced that you are superhuman and that absolutely nothing can hurt you or kill you. You will be unassailable! Once more Jesus answer is brief and to the point, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test (4:12)’.”

By tempting him to assume the special divine privilege that was given to him by the anointing of the Holy Spirit at baptism and by the Voice from Heaven’s affirmation that he was God’s beloved Son (3:22), by trying to persuade him to renounce the limitations of being human, by reassuring him that he would be able to pull off this stunt without getting hurt, the devil tried to destroy, once and for all, Jesus’ identification and solidarity with common humanity. For no normal human being can survive jumping off a high tower.

By refusing this temptation Jesus, though knowing himself to be God’s beloved son, fully accepted the limitations of being human. This is why the Church has always insisted on the paradoxical truth that Jesus was at one and the same time fully human and fully divine.

This third temptation resonated particularly strongly with me. We live in a culture that does not accept any limitation on what we can do, or be for that matter, and I am very much part of that culture. Haven’t we achieved miracles with the aid of modern science, research, right diet and exercise, miracle drugs, medical treatments for diseases that were long thought to be incurable? And haven’t ground breaking technologies and the best and the brightest minds of our time made it possible for us to put a man on the moon and to successfully send probes to the far reaches of our solar system and beyond?

  1. Jesus said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”. The unwillingness to live within our natural limitations is so widespread that it has affected us all. It is making us very vulnerable indeed as the consequences of the centuries long, mindless exploitation of the natural environment are increasingly evident. You could say that our whole modern culture has succumbed to the lure of the devil’s third temptation which was trying to lure Jesus to have God save him from self-inflicted harm, pride, and stupidity.

It resonated so painfully in me because I too have often risked my health and my spiritual well being, not to mention relationships that are important to me, by doing too much, by over-scheduling, not taking care of my body, eating too much, not exercising enough, not getting enough sleep, above all neglecting my spiritual discipline, all the while assuming that somehow my mind and body and spirit would survive my inattention, neglect and abuse. In effect I was counting on God to safe me from self-inflicted harm.

The common theme in three temptations is the abuse of power for the sake of our own selfish needs. Pondering the way I continue to succumb to the devil’s third temptation by neglecting the limitations of my own humanity continues to be a valuable, eye opening, spiritual practice. I invite you, I urge you, to do the same, prayerfully and with the help of the Holy Spirit who is none other than the Spirit of our Risen Lord, to whom be glory, dominion and power, for ever and ever.

Amen.

The Uncreated Light (John 1:5)

Homily, Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Troy, PA

Fr. Han van den Blink

1.     The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it [or, as it can also be translated: “been able to extinguish it (John 1:5)]”. This is one of the most beloved and comforting verses in the Preface to St. John’s Gospel.

This past year, when saying my prayers in the morning, I have been reading A Little Daily Wisdom from the Early Church. This book is filled with quotations from sayings of the Desert Abbas and Ammas. A recent one went as follows:

[St.] John Klimakos, [the 7th century monk who was the Abbott of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula], said, “If a sunbeam penetrates a house through a crack, it sheds light on what is inside, revealing even floating particles of dust. Reverence for God works the same way. When the [light] of the Lord enters us, it discloses all the imperfection remaining in us.”[1] This was the Abbott’s gentle way of telling his monks that one critically important function of light is to reveal what has been hidden or kept out of sight or out of awareness.

Light can be both revealing and diagnostic. It can show everything that is in a room or house, all the good and beautiful things that are there, the antique furniture, treasured photos and paintings, the books in the study, the implements and stores in the kitchen, but also the unused exercise equipment that is stored in the basement or garage, all the boxes in the attic filled with stuff we never look at, the mess and disorder that we never cleaned up, even floating particles of dust.

But light does other important things as well. Light can function as a point of reference. I once experienced that very dramatically myself. Not long before I immigrated to this country in my early 20s, I lived in Amsterdam on the base of the Royal Netherlands Navy where my father was stationed as the Navy Chaplain.

One day the Captain in charge of a detachment of Marines which was quartered there, invited me to accompany him and his men on an informal night exercise near Pampus, a small, island fortress with a lighthouse that has guarded the harbor of Amsterdam for centuries. The reason for the invitation was that he wanted to borrow my canoe from which he could, with me as his passenger, observe the exercise.

The Marines were divided into two groups, the Reds and the Blues. The Reds were to guard Pampus and prevent the Blues from capturing it. We left about 10 pm in a large Navy tug with the canoe lashed to its deck and all the Blues scattered around the ship. It was a dark and windy night, but it was summer and there seemed to be nothing to worry about. I felt very macho accompanying the Captain and his heavily camouflaged Marines.

As soon as we left the Amsterdam harbor, the Navy tug doused all its lights to make sure that the Reds on Pampus did not know where the Blues were coming from. When the tug arrived at its assigned spot, about a mile or so from Pampus, the Blues lowered their inflatable rubber boats, each holding about 3-4 men, into the choppy waters and soon were lost from sight.

Once the Captain and I were ensconced in the canoe, it became clear that the waves were lot rougher than they looked from the deck of the tug. We had not gone but a hundred yards or so when a particularly high wave swamped the canoe. By that time the tugboat was out of sight and without radio communication, out of reach. There was no opportunity to rid ourselves of our clothes to make swimming a bit easier without losing the canoe. There was nothing left to do but to swim toward Pampus with the canoe in tow.

 What the Captain was thinking at that moment must have been unprintable in a family newspaper. He must have regretted that he had invited me and my canoe to come along. What helped a great deal and may have actually saved our lives, by preventing our swimming around in circles, was the rotating beacon of the Pampus lighthouse which swept across the waves every minute or so and let us know the direction toward which we needed to be heading.

The distance, while pulling the water logged canoe, seemed endless. When we finally struggled ashore at Pampus the exercise was long over. I don’t remember who won, the Reds or the Blues, but I do remember that they all were already warming themselves around fires and drinking incredibly strong coffee.

To be sure, the experience with the Marine Captain on that dark and windy in 1955, when the lighthouse on Pampus became an important point of reference, is a humdrum example that pales beside the experience of untold Christians through the ages. Men and women for whom the inextinguishable Light of Christ was a life and soul saving point of reference in the midst [of] war, oppression, imprisonment, failure, hopelessness, grief, and whatever darkness had overwhelmed them or whatever assaults of evil were loosed against them.

God mercifully uses natural light to help us in many ways. God uses the rays of the sun to reveal to us what has been in the dark or hidden. God used the reflected light of stars, like the Star of Bethlehem, to help the Wise Men find their way and still does so to help sailors or pilots to determine their position.

God also uses artificial light, like the beams from the lighthouse on Pampus, to provide us with points of reference, electric lights that we can turn on with a switch to help us see what is around us and keep us from stumbling or falling on unseen obstacles, the light of wood or coal fires to warm us and cook our food, and battery powered flashlights to help us find our way in the dark.

  1. To understand the light that St. John mentions in his Gospel, it is important, however, to remember that the Light of Christ that shines in the darkness of this world and the darkness of our hearts, this Light that we celebrate at Christmas, is an entirely different kind of light. It is not generated by heavenly bodies, like the sun or the stars or by natural causes such as lightning or fires, or by made-man illumination of whatever kind.

That is the reason why the early Christian tradition called the Light of Christ uncreated because it is the Light of God and is not created by nature or human beings. It cannot be seen with our physical eyes, it can only be seen with the aid of the Holy Spirit, with our inner eyes, with the eyes of the heart. It is the Light that Moses saw in the in the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-7). It is the Light that the disciples saw during Jesus’s Transfiguration (Mt 17:1–9, Mk 9:2–8, Lk 9:28–36).

St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) whose writings have been helpful to me, once wrote about the uncreated Light in these words, “[W]hen Christ was transfigured He neither received anything different, nor was He changed into anything different, but was revealed to His disciples as He was, opening their eyes and giving sight to the blind. Take note that eyes with natural vision are blind to that light. It is invisible, and those who behold it do so not simply with their bodily eyes, but with eyes transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.”[2]

The Light that we celebrate at Christmas is the uncreated Light of God that was and continues to be revealed in Christ. This uncreated Light does all the things that natural and artificial light does but infinitely more. It reveals and uncovers what has been hidden, it shows us who we really are, warts and all, but also that we are the children of the heavenly Father who created us, whose compassion is without limit, and who desires our healing, our renewal, and our return to what we were created to be.

This uncreated Light strengthens and gives new energy, generates hope even at our life’s end, and opens a way where there may not seem to be a way out. This uncreated light conveys the love of God for each one of us, lessens fear, increases trust, and fortifies us in our struggles against the forces of darkness.

The uncreated Light is God’s gracious gift to each one of his children. It is available to all who desire it and turn to it prayerfully, and open their hearts to its presence. Even though it is invisible, as St. Gregory Palamas reminded us, and even though it is not subject to human understanding, comprehension, or measurement, it is known by the effects it has on us over time, the transformation that slowly takes place in us.

And what are these effects? Let me mention a few that I have observed. Being less fearful, less self-denigrating, more compassionate, less reactive, more confident, and less given to being manipulated or overwhelmed by the many forms of darkness that try to keep us from the Light of Christ.

Dear friends in Christ, let us unabashedly enjoy this holy season, including all the pleasurable traditions that have accumulated around it, the decorated tree, the presents, the carols, the festive meals, the family gatherings, but let us also remember that for many men and women Christmas is a difficult time because of negative memories, because of a lack of caring family members, because of broken relationships, because of fear to be hurt again.

But above all let us remember with gratitude that the heart of Christmas is the wondrous gift that God reached out to us in Christ Jesus and that God’s uncreated Light has never been, and never will be extinguished.

May you have a blessed Christmas!

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[1] A Little Daily Wisdom from the Early Church Edited by Bernard Bangley (Paraclete Press, 2014), p. 371.

[2] St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 34 (http://orthodoxwayoflife.blogspot.com/2010/02/truth-of-uncreated-light-of-god.html).