Léna is also a Regional Manager for Writopia Lab whose mission is to foster joy, literacy, and critical thinking in kids and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing.

"Well, the question is, what do you want to believe? Do you want to live in a world where things are possible, or in one where they aren't?" Cin, Edges.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Better to Light a Candle Than Curse the Darkness

In these past few days I have been at a loss for words and have taken comfort in the words of others. I have been reading a lot of poetry: Dylan Thomas, Rumi, Mary Oliver, William Blake, and I have been meditating on the fact that even though darkness sometimes wins, the world needs our inner light more than ever. My Dad sent me the sermon that he preached on Sunday from Winchester Cathedral in the United Kingdom and I wanted to share it with you  as he so beautifully expresses all of my hope.  My Dad is the dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. He is at once goofy and serious, and incredibly charismatic. He and my grandmother are the best preachers I have ever heard, and his name is Alan W. Jones.

Not much of a God . . . . and yet . . .

"Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and
pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way
to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key
moments, and life itself is grace." (Frederick Buechner)

The sermon fell apart after the news two days ago of “the slaughter of the
innocents” at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty little children
were slaughtered. The New York Times yesterday quoted a mother: “Who would do
this to our poor little babies?”

How do we respond to such news in this season of the divine child? At first
sight, things are made worse by the fact that we’re presented with not much of a
God! A child from “nowhere”. Bethlehem was “no place”! The Word of God is a
baby who cannot speak a word. If we’re prepared to go deeper, we find that
judgment hangs over us all if we cannot discern the mystery of the child. Those
dear dead children are a sign of judgment on a world that cannot decode the
glorious gift and mystery of being human. Each of us is a wonder, unique and
unrepeatable. And, St. Paul reminds us that we are stewards of these mysteries.
We’re given a baby – the promise of a new world, a new beginning. The message?
Don’t let the darkness and violence set the agenda. Better to light a candle than
curse the darkness.

Something “big” is happening in the world. With all the upheavals and
unrest, how is the human family going to survive and flourish? Christmas is a sign
of God’s generosity. It’s about a new way of being human. But we’ve ceased to be
shocked by the Christian message! It’s deceptively simple stuff – an act that turned
the world upside down. The simple truth that God has created us neighbors, made
us one people. It’s deeply shocking but we don’t notice it anymore. We either
ignore it or make it into something simple-minded and sentimental.

Don’t let the darkness and violence set the agenda.

There’s a story of the early rabbis arguing about which was the most
important text in the Bible. Rabbi Akiba said the greatest principle of Torah is
found in Leviticus: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Only one rabbi
challenged this. He argued that the simple words ‘This is the role of Adam’s
descendents” were more important because they revealed the unity of the entire
human race. The human race is one. – one human family, one ethnic group. God
created us neighbors. There are no “others”. All are our brothers and sisters,
without exception.

This isn’t just a nice idea. In fact, for most of us the discovery that the world
is one and that we are all neighbors is very distasteful. It’s something that’s
happening all over the world. We often fail “to acknowledge the sheer diversity of
this increasingly mixed-up world. More than ever, that must include the diversity to

be found in a single human skin, mind and heart.” There’s only one people. And it’s
us – all of us - together! This is the heart of the Christmas message of the Mother
and her Baby.

No, it’s not much of a God – a Baby who cannot speak. Our challenge in
these few days leading up the Christmas is to get in touch with the oddness of it all –
the proclamation that we’re all related. It’s shocking. And our way back into it’s
shocking generosity is simple – just to look at a woman with a baby. Don’t, in the
first instance, get cluttered up with a set of beliefs – just look as woman with a baby.
See your own flesh and blood.

We love babies because a baby is a sign of possibility. We look at a new-born
and think -- even if only for a moment -- that there is a chance that the human race
might make it after all! Loving babies isn’t sentimental. It’s wonderfully and deadly

E.B.White, the author of The Once and Future King, wrote a light but
deceptively simple poem about 70 years ago:

Hold a baby to your ear
As you would a shell:
Sounds of centuries you hear
New centuries foretell.

Who can break a baby’s code?
And which is the older –
The listener or his small load?
The held or the holder?

The Advent question? Who can break the baby’s code? Do you know what’s
really real? The poverty or richness of our loving determines what we think is real.
That’s what matters, that’s what’s important, that’s what the Baby is trying to tell
us. There are no others – only brothers and sisters. God has created us neighbors. We
are one flesh. And don’t expect the realization of this truth will always be pleasant!
Think for a moment about how odd it is that you’re here and alive – you,
unique and unrepeatable, an instance of wild improbability and deep significance.
It’s amazing. You’re amazing. Most of us have lost sight of the fact of the oddness of
our being here at all! And in Newtown, Connecticut this week, the world has been
robbed of thirty unique and unrepeatable souls.

Now think of the pathetic modesty of the revelation – not only a baby but a
baby born in Bethlehem of all places. The prophet Micah calls it a no place. It’s as
if I were to announce that Jesus is coming and he’s coming to Wimbledon (my birth
place), or, as we heard in the cathedral earlier this week, the birth place might just
have been Walthamstow!

Remember, the revelation of what truly matters happens in a place of no
importance – in the simple every day act of a young woman having a baby. Exactly
the way you came into the world. Through the doorway of the flesh. At Christmas
we learn that, as one early writer puts it, “The Flesh is the hinge of salvation!”
Simple, vulnerable and holy. What an awesome and wondrous thing it is to be alive,
to be human!

Don’t let the darkness and violence set the agenda.

How do we recover the wonder of the everyday and commonplace? through
flesh and blood – a woman with a baby? Roman Catholic theologian Andrew
Greeley puts the outrageousness of it all very simply: I often think that maybe half
our heritage is transmitted to children around the crib at Christmas time - and
especially in the wonderfully mysterious explanation of the Incarnation to little kids
that Mary is God's mummy."

Ridiculous isn’t it? Not much of a God. On one level is plainly daft. Too
naive and simple-minded for the clever and the sophisticated. But is it more
outrageous than the proclamation that every one matters and we are all part of one

That’s why we need stories and myths to give shape and purpose to our lives.
Carl Jung wrote, Anyone “who thinks he can live without myth, or outside it, like
one uprooted, has no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which
continues within him, or yet of contemporary human society. This plaything of his
reason never grips his vitals.” The killer in Connecticut had no inner story to help
him move through his craziness and pain.

Don’t let the darkness and violence set the agenda.

Mary is God's mummy! No, I haven’t gone off my head. I simply believe that
there is a profound truth here. And it comes home to us when we look at Mary and
her Baby. When we look with the eyes of love we find ourselves at a place of
unraveling, unweaving – we cross a boundary into another world – or better –
another way of looking at this world. Remember: The poverty or richness of your
loving determines what you think is real.

This why cathedrals are important. Look around you! The builders of this
place – what were they thinking. Those who built the cathedral in Seville said, “Let
those who come after us, when they see this, say, ‘They must have been mad!’” I’ve
visited the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres every year now for several years in a
row. Like Winchester, it is one of those borderland/boundary places. Its focus is on
Mary who presents us with the infant Jesus as a sign that we too are the place where
God chooses to dwell. Each of us matters that much.

I don’t know about you, but I need pictures and stories, which take me
across the boundary where I meet people like you who are also on a boundary-
crossing journey. Not “others” or aliens, but brothers and sisters. Neighbors.
What do we have in common – the motley crowd that shows up at places like
this at Christmas? We share a common vulnerability in that we’re not always sure
that we’re in the right place at the right time. Yet we have an instinct that the most
fruitful place for crossing the boundary is “in those areas of our life where we feel at
sea, not understanding, not succeeding.” Where a mystery overtakes us and we let
go of life as a mechanical thing. We cross the boundary into our deeper selves
when we really see that Mary is God’s mummy. We come to understand that the
poverty or richness of our loving determines what we think is real. This discovery is
the real gift of Christmas. And we discern that . . . Jesus is God’s Word to us about
ourselves and this good news comes to us in the form of a baby who cannot speak!
How strange is that? The imagery is stunning. You can hold the Word (God’s
communication to you) in your arms. You can suckle the Word at your breast. The
Word – the communication – is as vulnerable as that. In the flesh.

Hold a baby to your ear
As you would a shell:
Sounds of centuries you hear
New centuries foretell.

Don’t get caught in the sticky mess of doctrinal controversy. Look! Look! Look! See
your own mystery in a form that you can touch and handle. Don’t let the darkness
and violence set the agenda.

The tradition tells us that there are two births. Listen to the words of St.
Simeon, The New Theologian. “The ineffable birth of the Word of God in the flesh
from his mother is one thing, his spiritual birth in us in another. For the first, in
giving birth to the Son and Word of God gave birth to the reforming of the human
race and the salvation of the whole world . . . while the second, in giving birth in the
Holy Spirit and to the Word of knowledge of God, continually accomplishes in our
hearts the mystery of the renewal of human souls. Thus . . . . anyone, married or
unmarried, who lives with integrity towards God in the deeper level of their being
may not, like Mary, bear the Son of God in the flesh, but they can and do become,
like her, and will be God-bearers to humankind.”

How about that! Mary is God’s Mummy and you are invited to allow God to
come to term in you and be a God-bearers to the human family! All in the fleshy
messiness of everyday life. Allow the strangeness to get under your skin. If you do,
Christmas will be different this year. You will light a candle rather than curse the

So, before you plunge into the hectic last days of Christmas preparation,
experience your own oddness. Entertain, for a moment, the idea that Mary is God’s
mummy and in the light of that find out who you really are. Find out what’s
important. This Christmas give yourself away. Be a neighbor, be a brother, be a
sister, be your true self – be the best present anyone can give. And if you have the
chance . . .

Hold a baby to your ear
As you would a shell:
Sounds of centuries you hear
New centuries foretell.

Who can break a baby’s code?
And which is the older –
The listener or his small load?
The held or the holder?
And . . . don’t let the darkness and violence set the agenda. Know that the worst
word isn’t the last word. The baby’s coming and that’s good news.

Closing Prayers:

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable

People really need help, but may attack you if you help them

Give the world the best you have and you may be kicked in the teeth

A Christmas Prayer – For Winchester, 2012

The world waits for the coming
of the Prince of Peace.
Our hearts ache for justice for the poor
and carefree safety for our children;
for laughter in our homes –
the singing and dancing
native to the human spirit.

We thank you for the glorious
sounds of Christmas – tokens of our longing
and signs of your love.

We ask you to bless
the families represented here:


the whole ones;
the broken ones;
the scattered ones.

We commend into your gracious keeping
all those caught
in the spiral of violence and poverty –
here at home –
and in other cities –
Jerusalem, Baghdad, Kabul, Damascus, Newtown.

Especially protect the children,
and in your spirit,
help us so rebuild the world for them
so that your joy may fill their hearts
and your peace heal the nations.

Let’s switch off the world’s distorting noise
until we hear our own heart beating.
Let’s listen to its inner rhythm,
whispering, “God is with us.”
Revelation is all around,
showing us that every baby
is well-connected
and every one
the dwelling place of God.

Thanks be to God!

May the angels of God watch over us.
May Mary and all the Saints pray for us.
May the Lord lift up the divine countenance upon us
And give us peace, now, and forevermore.

ADVENT III: WINCHESTER CATHEDRAL – Evensong, Sunday, December 16, 2012.

The Very Rev. Alan Jones, dean emeritus, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, and honorary Canon
of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.


  1. I love this line: "We come to understand that the poverty or richness of our loving determines what we think is real." And this one: "Don’t let the darkness and violence set the agenda." They are words to hold onto, to stay confident that light and hope will shine on.

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