The people who sat in darkness - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The people who sat in darkness

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Before I came here to St Bride's I was for nine years the vicar of a wonderful mediaeval church in Edgbaston, Birmingham.  It was an absolutely beautiful building, but when I first went there, it needed quite a lot of work doing on it.  And one of the problems was to do with the lighting - the interior really was quite gloomy.  Indeed, there was a running joke that the congregation there really were 'the people that sat in darkness'. 

Indeed, I discovered that there were no less than 42 lights that weren't working (yes, I counted them!) - either because the bulbs had blown, or because the light fittings had 'had it'.  But there were also problems with the angling of the lights that did work - and indeed with the design of the system as a whole

So eventually we managed to overhaul and reconfigure the whole lighting system, and put in new bulbs and new fittings - and finally, when all the work was done, the new lights were switched on.  And the result was amazing and startling in equal measure.  Indeed, my own instantaneous and two-fold reaction when looking upwards to the newly illuminated roof space was: 'Good heavens! .... Oh my God!'

This combined reaction was prompted by what the new lighting revealed.  Because when the lights went on, suddenly, and completely unexpectedly, we discovered that above the chancel was the most exquisite oak ceiling, adorned with beautiful and intricately carved figures.  And nobody had remembered that it was there, because it hadn't been seen for decades.  The coming of the light had revealed an amazing hidden treasure.

But at precisely the same moment that this extraordinary carved ceiling was revealed, another rather less edifying revelation took place - because it was also the case that the very same glorious oak roof interior was festooned with chains of cobwebs of a scale that would have done Miss Haversham proud.  It was filthy!  And that is, of course, one of the strange, paradoxical features of light. 

We need light.  Light is essential to human life, and to human flourishing.  Light keeps us safe and secure; it enables us to do things.  Light can reveal the wonders around us that have been kept hidden from view. But light is also alarmingly indiscriminate in what it reveals: because along with the wonders come the cobwebs; the grime; the dirt; the neglect - all of the things that, actually, we would much rather remained hidden from view.   Which of course leaves us with a choice: do we try and conceal the grime - by switching the light off again, or by some other means?  Or do we stay with the light and instead rise to the challenge of doing something about the cobwebs?

There was a time, back in the days when I was working in theological education, when I had two young colleagues, who were fascinating to compare and contrast, because their reactions to situations were usually polar opposites.  And this was never more true than on those occasions when it came to light that one or other of them was responsible for something that had gone wrong, or had proved problematic in some way.

Because one of these individuals would never hesitate to take criticism on the chin.  As a result, not only did I come to admire his honesty and his bravery- but more than that, I noted that his first response to that kind of painful revelation was always - what could he learn from it?  What could he have done better?  He was the kind of guy who was never embarrassed or defensive when cobwebs and grime came to light - because he just dealt with them.  I could observe him growing into a wise, and profoundly insightful human being, who was also a much loved and trusted member of the staff team.

Conversely, the other individual was a man who would go to any lengths possible to try and escape the blame for anything.  Usually he did this by finding someone else to put in the frame, often displaying remarkable ingenuity in the version of events he came up with. Any criticism levelled at him, even when it was thoroughly deserved, was invariably batted away, and the truth concealed.  As you can imagine the other staff became increasingly annoyed by his refusal to take responsibility for his own mistakes, not least because he would often point the finger in their direction instead. But ultimately it really didn't help him either - because it started to shape the kind of human being that he was becoming, too.  I am absolutely certain that eventually he started to believe his own distorted version of events, and in the process it poisoned his working relationships, and ended up making life far more difficult than it needed to be for everyone - including, of course, himself.

'The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.'  At Christmas we celebrate the coming of light into the world with the birth of the Christ child.  And the imagery of light in this context could not be more appropriate.  What happens when a dazzling heavenly light is switched on?  Wonders are revealed, as our eyes are suddenly opened to the glorious presence of God in our very midst, in the people and situations around us; in the new possibilities and new hope for the future that we can glimpse at last.  A Bethlehem stable becomes the birthplace of a king; illiterate shepherds, ordinary working men, have this wonder entrusted to them, of all people, as the heavens and the earth collide.

But in that same instant we are also confronted by less comfortable truths - including the darker parts of our own souls; those parts of our inner lives that we conceal, not only from others, but even from ourselves.   And we are also presented with a choice.  How do we respond to the light, and to all that it has brought to light?

A Roman Catholic religious called Father Andrew, who died in 1946, once wrote this:

'The Incarnation did not alter anything, it only revealed the love of God.  One night, so to speak, a heavenly light was switched on to earth and men saw a baby['s] Face, and that was God'   [from The Melody of Life]

The coming of the light of Christ into the world does not provide us with an instant solution to life's problems, appealing though that idea might seem.   Rather, it does something far more important, and of much more lasting value than that. Because it reveals to us, suddenly and dramatically the true nature of those problems, both around us and in us - while at the same time opening our eyes to the glorious presence of God in our midst that will enable us to overcome them. And that is the route to the true and lasting peace of God in Christ.

And that is also why it is both strangely logical, and bizarrely perverse, that, when God comes among us at Christmas, he does so as a helpless child.  He comes as one who asks something of us:

So, do we welcome that child, or do we turn away?  Do we embrace the light, or shrink back into the shadows when it illuminates the darkest corners of our lives?  I wonder.  I hope and I trust that most of us here tonight would respond with these words of yearning in our souls:

O holy child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us we pray,
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
Their great glad tidings tell:
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.


Merry Christmas!


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