Sermons

Live, Consuming Fire

            Tonight is the 200th anniversary of the song, Silent Night. On Christmas Eve, 1818, the song was first sung. Francis Xavier Gruber was commissioned to co-compose music to the poem written by Josef Mohr, the priest in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. Mohr was born out of wedlock, so it was difficult to find godparents to baptize him. The town hangman agreed, but even he sent his housekeeper in his stead, and Mohr was baptized in the same font as Mozart. Still, Mohr was intelligent and tutored by the cathedral curate and went on to ordination in the church.

            Flooding regularly assaulted the church, necessitating repairs of the organ, making it unavailable for Christmas season in1818. (though this point is unclear and debatable) Mohr asked Gruber, who was the church organist and a schoolteacher, and only 5 years Mohr’s senior, to put his poem to music for guitar and two voices. Guitar was not an “approved” instrument, so it had to be sung after mass. Yet, the song has endured these 200 years – written by a bastard, played on a bawdy instrument.

            It was a destitute time for the area – following the devastation of the Napoleonic wars – so the song was especially hopeful and peace-filled. But the organ tuner, Karl Mauracher, helped to make it famous! He loved the song and brought the sheet music to Fügen in Tyrol, the place where music happened (think the von Trapp family singers). Two such singing groups, Strasser and the Rainer family singers, included it in their lineups and brought it to America and throughout Europe.

            The Lord is come. God is among us. Jesus is in the temple – our home, the earth, our being, the heart: Let all the earth be silent. (Hab 2:20)

            Silent night. Holy night.

            Christ descends, the earth to free:

            Grace divine! by thee we see

            God in human form!

Jesus is come. Let all the earth be silent.

Jesus is here, the earth freed

By grace we can see – God. Like us. Human. Let all the earth be silent.

            Son of God, Love’s pure light

Isaiah 60.1:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
   and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

Matthew 5.16:

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your goodness and give glory to God.

John 1.5:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

2 Corinthians 4.6:

For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

In the Jewish tradition Hanukkah usually coincides with Christmastime. Hanukkah is referred to as the Festival of Lights. Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner explains:

            The lighting of the menorah represents the miracles experienced by the Maccabees more than two thousand years ago. In 167 BCE, the Maccabees were victorious in reclaiming control of Israel from the Greeks. When they returned to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, finding the Temple desecrated and defiled, the Maccabees began working to rededicate the Second Temple. As part of the rededication, they went about trying to revive the Temple rituals, including the lighting of the Menorah, the seven branched candelabra that stood at the entrance to the Temple. The Maccabees went searching for pure olive oil, which was required in order to light the candles, but all they found was one small jar which was not even enough to light the menorah for one whole day. Miraculously though, this little amount of oil continued to burn for eight consecutive days.

            In modern Jewish practice, the tradition is to light a candelabrum that has nine lights, one for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah and a central candle, the shamash, from which the other candles are lit. On the first night of Hanukkah one candle is lit, and then each subsequent night one candle is added. By the end of the eight-day holiday, the entire candelabra of eight candles are lit along with the shamash. The reason for this practice is to rise in holiness each day as we count the eight days of the holiday.

            But what does it mean to rise in holiness by adding candles? Holiness is most often seen as something separate from day to day life, something above and beyond the ordinary. However, to truly be holy does not come from what we do in solitude. True holiness includes the ability to be in the presence of other people in a way that helps spread spirituality and good through the world. The lights of Hanukkah beautifully symbolize this spreading of light. On the first night, we have one candle, which brings light into a dark place. Each subsequent night we add one candle, enhancing the experience of light breaking through in difficult times. Without all the candles coming together, the light doesn’t grow, but remains small. So too with holiness. One act of holiness can raise us above the mundane, but one act, alone, by one person, is not enough. Without each of us coming together to do holy work, the single acts remain small and they do not raise holiness. When holy acts are brought together, spirituality will radiate and permeate into everything.

            In this time of celebration, let us rejoice in our ability to come together, rising above what separates us, for when we are together, we can truly brighten up the world.

Kinzbrunner

The metaphor of light is powerful. We require it to see. We are warmed by its source (well, natural light, that is). Still, to understand fire itself is beautiful to aid wonder, as well. Did you know?:

  • Fire is an event, not a thing. Heating wood or other fuel releases volatile vapors that can rapidly combust with oxygen in the air; the resulting incandescent bloom of gas further heats the fuel, releasing more vapors and perpetuating the cycle.
  •  Most of the fuels we use derive their energy from trapped solar rays. In photosynthesis, sunlight and heat make chemical energy (in the form of wood or fossil fuel); fire uses chemical energy to produce light and heat.

So a bonfire is basically a tree running in reverse.

 From “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Inner Earth,” in Discover Magazine, two more fascinating and relevant facts:

  • The inner core is nearly as hot as the surface of the sun, and the pressure down there is 3 million times what it is on the surface.
  • Earth’s solid and liquid cores together generate the magnetic field that keeps the solar wind—a nonstop, 250-mile-per second stream of charged particles emitted by the sun—from stripping away our atmosphere.

            It struck me as a beautiful metaphor for the effects of entering and dwelling in the inner mansion of St. Theresa’s, Interior Castle. The journey to move through the interior mansions is one of purification. That is, when events of life jab and prod relentless, impelling one to plaster over protective layer after layer until the true person within is no longer recognizable. Nothing else protects and the crust hardens and cracks leaving one more vulnerable than before.

But when the inner journey is made in stillness and quiet and the scorpions and snakes that invade the outer mansions are no longer within reach to torment, the encrusted outer pieces slough off, the pain of it less relevant. In the quiet center of the soul is the consuming fire that is not consumed, just as the bush communed with Moses. The light burns still brighter with each advance toward that place in the very center of ones being, and the power to generate a magnetic field about us can withstand the nonstop, 150-mile-per second stream of charged particles that circumstances often seem to whip at us. It is a mystery. It is the apparent dichotomy of God’s tabernacling on us, that a consuming fire that is not consumed will dwell with us and generate a shield about us for protection against the radioactive fire without.

            Still, for some reason I resist. Why would I turn from this light that produces such power and try to put on layers for all to see whom I think others want to see—or I think I would like to be? It is not so much a question of identity. It is a question of control. I do not lose who I am most truly—indeed, I am even more of who I truly am—when I abandon my efforts to create an image. To dwell in the center with that consuming fire that is not consumed (and, of course, that fire’s fuel is Love) is a quiet act, one of stillness. Being. And, giving up control. Henri Nouwen has this beautiful reflection:

“To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So is to trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. So, too, is giving up control over our future, letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.”

Aka, holy indifference.

            I have harmed others with acts of control. Others have harmed me with the same. But none is more harmed than me when I take that control, because in doing so I become less of me. And there is something so appealing about the thought that the power in me could generate a magnetic field! Sci-Fi novels have nothing on this! Then who I am most truly and its beauty can be seen and unharmed by those charged particles whipping and whirling around it. I want to see your beauty as you truly are and know that it will not be harmed. Imagine the magnetic field that could be produced when still more of us are centered with the One who Loves us with a consuming fire that is not consumed! Imagine that it also covers and protects some who have not had the courage yet, but by our standing with them might have relief enough to enter in, journey to that interior mansion and commune with the consuming fire that is not consumed….

God pierced time and space, became a helpless baby with no control over anything. The force of which the world has never seen. Love – all consuming

1. Love divine, all loves excelling, 
joy of heaven, to earth come down; 
fix in us thy humble dwelling; 
all thy faithful mercies crown! 
Jesus thou art all compassion, 
pure, unbounded love thou art; 
visit us with thy salvation; 
enter every trembling heart.

4. Finish, then, thy new creation; 
pure and spotless let us be. 
Let us see thy great salvation 
perfectly restored in thee; 
changed from glory into glory, 
till in heaven we take our place, 
till we cast our crowns before thee, 
lost in wonder, love, and praise. 

And this is heaven: Revelation 21.23:

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God Is. Its. Light., and its lamp is the Lamb.

Tonight, as we light the Christ Candle let us borrow the prayer used on the final night of Hanukkah:

Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-he-nu Me-lech Ha-olam she-heche-ya-nu ve-ki-yi-ma-nu ve-higi-a-nu liz-man ha-zeh.

Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.