Just a few days ago, we passed the shortest day of the earth’s annual trip around the sun. This is a dark time of year. For most of us, it’s dark when we get up in the morning and dark when we come home in the evening. And for that very reason, it’s also a time of year that is full of light. Whether we use candles, or oil lamps, or incandescent or flourescent bulbs, we go to great lengths to surround ourselves with light in the midst of the pervasive darkness. Most of the houses and lawns that have brightened our neighborhoods with their multi-colored lights will continue to do so for a few more days. The lights on our Christmas trees adorn our living rooms and dens. We are entranced, in an almost mystical way, by the power of light shining in the darkness.
When the ancient people of Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt, the Lord led them to their eventual homeland through an extended period of wandering in the desert. The Israelites were at that time a people who walked in darkness—figurative darkness all the time, literal darkness about half the time. During the hours of daylight, they were led by what the book of Exodus describes as a “pillar of cloud.” It must itself have been luminous, glowing like a winter fog across Indiana cornfields glows when you can tell it’s going to burn off in another hour or so. During the night time hours, the Israelites were led by a “pillar of fire.” This was surely a sight to behold! They began to associate light with the presence of God in their midst.
In due course, Moses, their leader, erected a special tent, called the Tent of Meeting. Within the tent there was a place called the Tabernacle, which means, literally, to “encamp,” to “pitch a tent” in a particular location. Moses alone would enter the Tent of Meeting and commune with God at the Tabernacle, receiving instruction and wisdom for his demanding leadership duties. When Moses emerged from the tent, his face glowed with the very glory of God, such that he actually had to wear a veil in order for his countrymen to be able to look on him. The tent itself was luminous with the glory of God—one might say that it “lit up like a Christmas tree.” It was experienced by Israel as the place where the Lord dwelt among them, the place where his glory abides.
You and I, in our natural human condition, are just as lost as the ancient Israelites. The universe is a dark place, an “old” place, terminally ill, in bondage to the power of sin and death. We are, in a profound spiritual sense, homeless within it. We are, in fact, homesick for Heaven, even though we’ve never been there. We are born refugees. We yearn longingly for a far country that we know is our true and lasting home, but we’ve forgotten where it is, or how to get there. We desperately need a light, a pillar of fire to illuminate the darkness, a luminescent tabernacle that glows with the glory of God.
Blessedly, there is just such a source of light available to us. St John tells us about it in his marvelous prologue to the Fourth Gospel. He tells us of the eternal Word of God, who was with God in the beginning, and who is, in fact, himself God. Of this Word, John says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” He is the “true light that enlightens every man.” And then, in that climactic fourteenth verse of the first chapter of John, we read that “the word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”
When John says that the Word “dwelt among us,” he uses the same Greek word which also translates the Hebrew for “tabernacle.” Jesus, the Word made flesh, is our tabernacle, the dwelling of God in our midst, the place where his glory abides. Jesus is, in effect, our ticket home. He knows the way, and if we hang out where he hangs out, we’ll eventually arrive at that far country that we long for with such intensity.
After his resurrection from the dead, of course, Jesus ascended, in thee words of the creeds, back to “the right hand of the Father.” But his presence with the Father does not mean he is absent from us. He has left us the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, a sacrament which nourishes and sustains his people with his very presence every time they gather to dine on his broken body and poured out blood. In fact, the place where we put the “sacred leftovers,” the consecrated bread and wine which is reserved for the communion of the sick, is, in fact, called the taberncle, and a lamp is perpetually lit near it, signifying the presense of God’s glory in our midst. This is the house of God, the place where his glory abides. Bending the knee before his tabernacle is an entirely fitting and proper act of reverence. We are as privileged as Moses, and if we realized just how privileged we are, I wonder how much more brightly our faces would glow
as we emerge from this Tent of Meeting back into the world.
Now, I could quit right here, because there’s unspeakable good news in what I’ve already said, more than ample reason to “make Eucharist,” which is to offer thanksgiving. But there’s more. There is, as they call it in Louisiana, lagniappe, something extra, an unexpected bonus. Out of this tabernacling in our midst, we not only see God in his glory, but we also see, in the light reflected from the face of Jesus, our own true selves. In Christ, we know ourselves more completely than we ever could before. We see ourselves to be simultaneously a people walking in darkness, miserable offenders, struggling under the grievous memory and intolerable burden of sin, and also as a people who have seen a great light, forever united to the One who has so mercifully “pitched his tent” among us by assuming our human flesh and human nature.
The very fact that we are at all able to live under Grace, the fact that we are able to pray, able to love, able to forgive—this is all made possible by the marvelous light of Christmas, the light of the incarnation, the light of the Word made flesh. So keep the lights turned on. It’s Christmas. The Lord has shone forth his glory. Come, let us adore him. Amen.