by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
24 December 2021
“The best things arrive as if by lightning, in sudden penetrations of light and joy.”
So writes the philosopher Marth Nussbaum in her magisterial book on the human emotions. The particular context for that great sentence is a discussion of infanthood. All of us as infants experience a transformation when we begin to understand that the persons caring for us are real and will return to meet our needs. Thus, it is for the infant that the best things arrive as sudden penetrations of light and joy.
But Nussbaum is quick to point out that those early experiences imprint themselves upon us and help to form and shape us as persons throughout our lives. And I was drawn to that sentence, because while she might have meant it primarily for infants, it seems to bear some truth even or us adults. So many good things do arrive as if by sudden penetrations of light and joy.
And Christmas is always about the sudden bursting forth of light and joy. As the prophet Isaiah sings, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” And with the light comes joy and exultation.
Walter Brueggemann, the great UCC bible scholar, writes that the Israel for which Isaiah wrote was “driven to distress, darkness, gloom, and anguish.” Sounds familiar. And into this dismal situation Isaiah proclaims that there is “yet another chance in the world.” We don’t have to resign ourselves to the dismal status quo. God is at work, in human history, to do something new and different. Brueggemann writes that the theological point of the passage is God’s capacity “for a newness that is completely fresh.”
And so there will be light. A reference to God’s glory. To the “visible evidence of [God’s] splendor, majesty, and sovereignty” as Brueggemann writes. Where people had felt God absent, God is going to suddenly seem very present.
And that experience will evoke “unrestrained celebration and rejoicing.”
All together is the “The Great Reversal.” And God is recruiting us to become agents of the transformation.
And in the passage all of this is tied to the birth of a child. For the prophet Isaiah, probably a reference to the birth of a new prince in Jerusalem, a new prince always a vessel of the people’s hopes for a better future. But the passage took on layers of meaning through our long history. Eventually a promise of a coming Messiah, God’s agent of restoration. And then we Christian’s view the passage as a reference to Jesus and the Gospel writers draw upon it in telling their stories, and that’s why it’s one of the scripture lessons for Christmas Eve.
But there’s the more general meaning that with every birth of every child there is promise and possibility, newness and hope.
Every year I remind you of Meister Eckhart’s great statement on Christmas that the whole point isn’t just to celebrate a historical event, that Jesus was born two thousand years ago, but to recognize that the Christ can be born anew in us this year, every year.
And so this passage in Isaiah holds out the possibility that something new can be born in us, a sudden penetration of light and joy that leads, as promised, to endless peace.
The great twentieth century Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that we humans get something wrong when we focus on mortality as the experience we all have in common. While we do have death in common, much more important for us right now is that we have birth in common. Natality is the great shared human experience. We were all infants, all vulnerable, all of us relied upon the care and attention of others even to survive. But we lose touch with that and the reality that it remains true for our fragile adult bodies. And natality is also our experience of newness. As theologian Elizabeth Gandolfo writes, drawing upon Arendt, “Natality is the condition of human possibility, the foundation of freedom—because we are natals we are free to do new things.”
So, if we are going to be transformed and experience the promised light, joy, peace, then we’ve got to get back in touch with our natality. With our vulnerability and possibility.
Elizabeth Gandolfo writes that the power of this Christmas story is that God became a baby, experience human natality too. And our connection with God is in this experience. She writes, “Humans are united with the loving God in and through their union with the creatable, cradled presence of God in the vulnerable world.” Incarnation is the embrace of vulnerability. Therefore, our transformation too is about embracing our vulnerability.
How do we embrace our vulnerability? By making peace with the tragic nature of human existence. In fact, that’s the essence of the endless peace promised to us and that we seek. She writes, “Peace entails an understanding and an acceptance of the tragic structure of existence, and thus frees us to appreciate the Beauty that continually and infinitely emerges from the process.”
Our human experiences of the last two years have been an intense pedagogy in human vulnerability, in the tragic nature of our existence, in the fragility of our bodies and our social systems.
Which means we’ve also gone through something that had the potential to transform us. A deeply spiritual experience. A chance to accept reality and then within that to find those moments of beauty. To see where, even in the darkness, light and joy suddenly penetrate.
This Christmas story is our annual reminder of those very truths. So let us rejoice, that a child is born, that we are renewed and transformed, that God is doing fresh and new things, that our future can be one of endless peace.