Sermon for Advent IV; 2017.12.24;
Are you dreaming of a White Christmas? Two Sundays ago those who battled through the blizzard conditions arrived at church in a winter idyll, the snow as deep and crisp and even as on the seasonal advertising and decorations. Despite global warming, our imagination is still captivated by the fierce winters of Victorian England. So today I want to think about the whiteness of snow and the contrasting darkness of the solstice, about what these colours might mean spiritually, and about the prejudices which they expose.
We don’t actually know the date when Jesus was born. It might have been in the height of summer. The Bible doesn’t say. But the great Church Council of Nicaea in 325 set the date of Christmas in the bleak midwinter. It chose December 25th because the themes of Christmas chime with where we are in the solar calendar. Following the solstice, the darkness begins to retreat; black winter has reached its zenith and is gradually overcome by spring suns. Jesus’ coming is as just such a light. The bishops gathered at Nicaea also knew that the Roman festival of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun god, fell on December 25th. By gate-crashing the pagans’ party, the Nicene bishops offered the ancient world a celebration of yet greater brightness. So it will be this afternoon as St Michael’s sheds its drab purple and becomes sparkling white and gold in advance of the crib service.
Christian images of lightness and whiteness as ciphers for goodness are in abundance around the year and across the Bible.
By extension, parts of the Bible assert the reverse, associating darkness with moral evil.
So things seem pretty black and white. Or are they?
Consider the chessboard. White and black are just colours. We can play and win with either set of pieces. White possesses no moral or gaming advantage. It is just a colour.
So it must be with God. White and black in God are just colours. God is no more literally ‘white’ than he is physically ‘male’. Both colour and gender in God are metaphors, analogies. We call God ‘he’ because there are certain qualities which we associate with masculinity – and in particular paternity – which we find perfected in our Heavenly Father. It does not drive out those aspects of the divine which are shown to us in femininity, such as compassion and warmth. Both are true. Just so, we predicate lightness of God only secondarily because our ancestors linked light with growth and fertility – and so also with goodness, inspiration and moral purity. However, God in himself is beyond earthly likeness. That is why Psalm 139 says of God that ‘the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day’. Or, in the words of an evening hymn, ‘dark and light are both alike to thee’.
If dark and light are both alike to God, but different to us, we are being told something about God and something about humans. As Christians, we need to be asking ‘have we taken the metaphor of light too far?’ Consider again the logic of those bishops at the Council of Nicaea choosing December 25th as the date of Christmas. This date only works if, like them, we live in the northern hemisphere. Try telling an Aussie you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, and she’ll laugh until you come back in June. And even then it’ll be too hot, lucky so and sos…
But the challenge to our imagery goes deeper. Back on Christmas Day 1952, Frank Sinatra sang ‘White Christmas’ at Government House in Nairobi, Kenya. With due incongruity, his audience was entirely Caucasian and the Mau Mau rebellion had just begun.
What might it feel like for someone of African heritage to be told that black is bad? Black is just black. Indeed, for someone of African heritage, black is not value-neutral. Black is how God made him, a thing to celebrate. And so the message of the gospel is that all racial discrimination is anathema – precisely because dark and light are both alike to God.
Likewise, what might it feel for a person without sight to be told that she is ‘blind’? Darkness for her just is – a part of daily existence. In the seventeenth century John Milton lost his sight. But his poem Samson Agonistes took a stand against those who thought he was diminished by his medical condition. Milton claimed to perceive political and religious truths which his sighted contemporaries could not. As Edwin Muir later wrote, ‘his unblinded eyes / saw far and near the fields of Paradise.’ True blindness for Milton was not outward but inward. And so the message of the gospel is that all discrimination based on disability is anathema – precisely because dark and light are both alike to God.
And if some dark is light, is it not unreasonable to discover that some light is dark? Consider that light which startles and disorients. Are there occasions when we are so convinced we’re right that we see things in monochrome, condemn others too easily, or cannot find the truth in a different perspective? Jesus is the true light who is coming in the world, yet the world does not know him, because it is too caught up in its own self-righteousness.
The world fails to recognise Jesus, in part because God is so fundamentally mysterious. When we realise that dark and light are distinct for us but both alike to God then we come to appreciate something profoundly important not only about ourselves but also about the almighty. God is so unlike everything around us. He conforms and confounds our descriptions.
The seventeenth century poet, Henry Vaughan expressed this when musing on The Night. Vaughan praised darkness as positive, a reflection of the God who is different. It is better, Vaughan claimed, to have dim glimpses of what God is not, than to be over-assertive of what he is.
There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness; as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear;
O for that night! where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.
I am not so politically correct as to say we should abandon the language of darkness and light altogether. Doing this would risk turning us into secularists – and the only colour of secularism is grey. Our need is not to abandon symbolism, but to remember that it is symbolism, and that symbolism can be limited, especially for those with different perspectives.
The subversion of accepted ideas and symbols is part of the Christmas message. The Christ-child was a long way from home, so what of our cosy fireside scenes? The Christ-child was hungry, so what of our creaking platters? The Christ-child had so few to support him, so what of family gatherings?
Get the balance right: there is much that is good and holy in the Victorian caricature of Christmas, but we only dare celebrate it if we acknowledge Christ also in the lonely lady next door, Christ also in the homeless, Christ also in the refugee. Far from saying that God is morally neutral, I am saying that She uses the full panoply of creation – black and white – for Her ends and in ways that confound our expectations. That is what Christ’s incarnation is about. It is not God that is neutral, but that we are neutered if we wish all our Christmases be white.