January 3rd, 2016
Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?
— Richard Feynman
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord
One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right. We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies made of stardust….
….essentially no nuclei—beyond lithium, the third lightest nucleus in nature—formed during the primeval fireball that was the Big Bang….
….While lithium is important for some people, far more important to the rest of us are all the heavier nuclei like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, and so on. These were not made in the Big Bang. The only place they can be made is in the fiery cores of stars. And the only way they could get into your body today is if these stars were kind enough to have exploded, spewing their products into the cosmos so they could one day coalesce in and around a small blue planet located near the star we call the Sun. Over the course of the history of our galaxy, about 200 million stars have exploded. These myriad stars sacrificed themselves, if you wish, so that one day you could be born. I suppose that qualifies them as much as anything else for the role of saviors.
To God belongs the East and the West.
Wherever you turn, there is the face of God.
God is All-Encompassing, All-Knowing.
The most beautiful and deepest experience [someone] can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavor in art and science. One who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is.”
We spent Autumn in the Dark Wood. The Dark Wood a metaphor for the via negativa, the way of letting be and letting go. It is the path in which we recognize the sacred and the holy in the “not obvious” or “the not easily seen” or through the “hard knocks.” Rather than see the dark as evil or sinful or bad or something to avoid, the path through the dark is a path of growth.
The light is reborn at Winter Solstice. The reason for the season is the tilt of Earth’s Axis. The sun appears to us to be lower in the sky. But now through summer solstice, the sun will appear to move higher and the days will become longer. It happens every year.
Our ancestors recognized this as a sacred time and celebrated the return of the Sun long before Jesus or ancient Israel. If you imagine a time before electricity, you can see how important this celebration would be. From four thirty in the afternoon until 7:30 in the morning is a long time to be dark and cold.
Winter Solstice meant that the sun would not leave us forever, but would return. At the darkest point, the sun will rise. Each day there will be more light after the long, long dark nights.
The first evidence that Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus the Christ on December 25 comes from a Roman almanac in the mid 4th century. It is an almanac that records the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”
Another date was also celebrated for his birth in the eastern church, January 6th. While it seems that these dates correspond with earlier festivals regarding winter solstice, it appears that the date of December 25 and January 6 were related to the Jewish calendar. The death of Jesus was established early as at Passover, 14 Nisan, or in the Gregorian calendar, March 25.
March 25th began to be celebrated as the annunciation to Mary from the angel and the conception of Jesus. Nine months later, December 25th. Jesus was believed to have been conceived and executed on the same date, March 25th. In the Eastern church, working from a slightly different calculation, the crucifixion and conception was April 6th with the birth of Jesus January 6th. December 25th won the day for the birth of Jesus although some eastern churches celebrate his birth on January 6th. In the west, January 6th was given to the date of the arrival of the magi, the astrologers, or Epiphany. From December 25th through January 6th are the twelve days of Christmas.
Once Christianity became recognized and then the official religion of the Roman Empire, the date of December 25th became helpful for conversion. The church actively Christianized ancient pagan celebrations. Borrowing and legend building added to the stories and the theology around the birth of Jesus. The son of God s-o-n is also the s-u-n both rising from the east and returning. One can imagine the ease of connecting Christian myth and theology with natural events.
So it is probably not the case that December 25th was chosen for the birth of Jesus because of winter solstice celebrations. It was connected to the death/conception of Jesus. Christians didn’t care about the birth of Jesus until much later. It happened that the date December 25th worked out rather nicely with winter solstice and so the church capitalized on it.
I recommend Andrew McGowan’s article, “Why December 25th became Christmas.”
Religious myth, and when I say myth I am not being dismissive but descriptive, connects our senses, our emotions, our unconscious way of knowing with what we observe. We don’t need to take it literally, we just need to splash in it. All of these myths and stories are our psyches displayed on a big screen. When we learn the history and the science of how these stories came to be, I don’t think it ruins it or takes the magic away, but adds to it. Hence the quote at the top of the bulletin by physicist, Richard Feynman:
“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?”
I am not sure if all poets actually say that, but we see his point. He can feel, too. Even though he understands the physics of stars, more than virtually every human being who has ever lived, nonetheless on a desert night, he can “feel” the stars as well as know them. Knowing doesn’t take away the feeling.
That is such an important lesson. Understanding the science that explores the working of Earth and Heaven does not take away its beauty. It enriches it. The same way is true for understanding our religious texts and our theology from an historical point of view. Understanding how the biblical texts came to be and how our theological doctrines developed doesn’t take away their feeling or their truth. It does change the way we see, but in the words of Richard Feynman, “do we see less or more?”
Now that you have hung in there with me for a year, you are probably getting my angle on how I approach our faith heritage and teach and preach about it. It is behind and underneath the texts that we get a glimpse of the people who told these stories and what was at stake for them. That is our connecting point. We have similar things at stake.
We don’t need to affirm or deny or believe or not believe what was said in these books and what was formulated in the creeds. That is not their gift to us. Their gift is that they did it, and we can do it as well. We can enter into these stories and feel with them and we can learn from historians and scientists who show unveil for us a little bit more of how the world works. Not either/or but both/and.
Isaiah chapter 60 is known as third Isaiah. Three different authors from three time periods in one book. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah talk about the time before the exile, chapters 40-55 are from the time in exile, and the latter part 55 to 66 as the return.
This reading from chapter 60 was used to tell in part the Christmas story. It is glorious, happy, hopeful poetry about the end of their suffering at the hands of the Babylonians and a new start. The future is bright according to the poet.
I would like to disavow any notion that the Hebrew prophets predicted Jesus. It was the other way around. The Christian storytellers looked back on their scriptures, the Hebrew Scriptures, and borrowed stories to tell the Jesus story. When Isaiah talks about bringing gold and frankincense, he is not predicting the wise men from the east. The tellers of that story in Matthew borrowed from Isaiah those images in creating the story of the wise men. That same author borrowed from the birth story of Moses to tell the birth story of Jesus. So why?
Those stories resonated with this new experience and new hope amidst the darkness of their recent past. After the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem in the Jewish War of 66-70, how possibly could Isaiah 60 be true? How could the God of Moses still be present after the entire city is razed, every messiah crucified, children destroyed by violence, war, and complete humiliation.
How does hope continue amidst the crush of Rome’s empire?
The gospel writers were offering hope and possibility. Isaiah 60 is still true and it is finding its expression in the life and vision of the rabbi Jesus. The stories attached to Jesus were a way of preserving and reinterpreting the promise of the tradition.
The message is clear: God has not abandoned us. God was not defeated. This suffering is temporary. The light shines again as sure as the sun will return at solstice. When you can say that in the midst of so much violence, death, destruction, and dashed hopes, you have faith.
When you can say, I will rise after falling so far, you have faith.
That is the Christmas/Epiphany story.
We look to our ancestors for inspiration of how to survive the rough times. That is the power and hope of our traditions. They are the imaginative stories of those who survived to tell the story. They include the rough stuff. They include the self-doubt, the self-defeating behavior, the mistakes, the grief, the hopelessness.
They tell yet amidst it, amidst the “thick darkness” writes Isaiah, amidst the paranoia and ruthlessness of Herod as Matthew tells it, of the light of hope and of possibility. Of rescue. Of a new start. A new birth. The sun will return.
When I was a teenager I used to enjoy going out at night when it was pitch dark and see the Montana stars. They may not be the brightest stars on the planet, but brighter than many places. A big black canopy on fire with stars too numerous to count. Beautiful, even if I know little about them.
Now that I know that they are suns, sacred holy suns, as ours, source of heat and light to other planets, possibly other life, that is amazing. The stars have life cycles I have learned. They explode and from theses explosions new suns are born and new planets. Every atom in our body comes from the material of exploding stars.
What are my problems in light of that?
I have them. They are real. But really. This magnificent experience is before me as I lay on a haystack just five miles south of Whitehall, Montana in the dark moonless and star-filled night sky.
“What are we, that you are mindful of us?’ says the psalmist who also might have been gazing at the stars from a desert sky. And yet we matter. We matter to each other, to ourselves, to the experience of life itself.
We need to reminded of a bigger picture every now and then. We need to be reminded that as stars have their life cycles, so do we. One day we will not be. But now we are. It is amazing to be alive. There is suffering. There is darkness.
But there is light. We can laugh again. We can be brave again. We can embrace. We can wipe the tears away and go outside and breathe deeply. Whatever changes happen, and they will happen, we can know that our ancestors experienced them too.
And yet they said,
“Your heart shall thrill and rejoice
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you.”
From the opening words of the Gospel of John,
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not over come it.”
We honor the light this season. As each day becomes brighter, we honor creativity, new life, new possibility, new hope.
Arise, shine; for your light has come.