A Sermon for the First Eucharist of Christmas, 2023
It was about 380 million years after the Big Bang that the universe then burst into light. Before that point, the chaotic matter of creation was just bouncing and bashing about until, first, the elements that can provide light sources began to cohere, and then hydrogen that brightly burns was born. Among the density of these particles in the early and – rapidly expanding – universe, second, space then needed to grow greater and greater between the elemental clouds of blazing gas, before that light could begin to travel anywhere at all.
This first brilliant shining in space is still important: its legacy is still around us, in the form of what astrophysicists now rather unpoetically name ‘cosmic background radiation’. By measuring the levels of this ‘CBR’, astrophysicists can gain a better sense of the universe’s age, and they have also begun to use CBR to chart its expansion rate. So by something that is rooted in the first light of the universe, the frontiers of scientific knowledge are being pushed ever further back, to reveal the great history of everything.
We still see, now from earth, sparks of light that are less ancient than this ‘CBR’, but which are also millions of years old. Light from the far distant stars that seem to shine just above us in the night sky was actually first emitted by those stars millions of years ago. It has taken all that time for their light to reach our planet, so that we can watch them twinkling on this darkened night.
Some of the stars we think we see when we look up are actually ghost lights: they have long burned out and become blackened with growth or collapse, but because of the length of time it has taken the light they sent out long ago to reach us, they still seem to us to shine just as bright as ever.
The writer of the Gospel of John uses the theme of light with great skill. They play with the idea that light shines out as a gift that comes from beyond our spheres of human knowledge – coming ultimately from the truth of God’s own ageless and uncreated nature. They talk of this particular understanding of light as coming from before the universe even existed, let alone from when visible light actually began to shine within it.
They talk of this light as the shining presence of God from before and beyond the Big Bang. From the beginning which preceded any thing beginning. This was the light which passed through the boundaries of darkness and into our universe, gradually ordering and working to bring it into a fullness of being. This was the light that, at an appointed time, passed into our world’s darkness too. This light emptied itself of power and was somehow spun within and knitted inside human flesh, and swaddled and laid in a manger by His mother.
This is the light who is God, the Son, and became the child, the Christ.
Throughout the gospel of John, the writer also draws a playful distinction between those who ‘see’ and therefore understand that they are able to perceive all things truly because of this divine light, and those who are literally able to see but cannot understand that it is this light that could give ground to their reason and to the knowledge of God, and who are therefore actually trapped without vision and kept in incomprehension and fear of the dark.
Christ may have been born some 2000 years ago, but for Christians, it is by his light that is still with us that we are learning how to see now. No ghost light this, whose source has actually passed away. His light – the glory of God’s own being – still shines, eternal and unchanging into our lives, and it changes them if we learn to see by it.
Indeed, the Turkish bishop of the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus, calls Christ’s birth a ‘lightening flash … that will not fade away’: ‘the light that [somehow] exceeds in brightness’ all the lights of the universe for ever. That is how Christ can be seen by, when we grow in understanding so that we may be joined to and become a new creation with Him. Our slow growth in faith and toward a fullness of being transforms our ability to ‘see’, and to reflect the image of the Christlight, just as bright as ever it was.
Cecil Frances Alexander’s carol, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ – and do please come back in the morning to sing it with us – promises that ‘…our eyes at last shall see him through his own redeeming love’, and that ‘we shall see him … in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high…’
This is the hope that lies even beyond the growth in understanding and into the very presence of God that the Gospel of John also holds out, but mysteriously. It is the promise that that one day we will perceive the light of Christ direct: telescoping our ‘sight’ and our understanding of God so close to His own being that there will be seem to be no distance at all, not even a single light year, to separate us from his perfection.
One day, the light that came before and beyond all things will shine not only for us and our change into redemption, but completely. It will dawn entirely in us, as we are in its presence. And then we shall be complete in Christ.
So that by the light that came before the first light of the universe, the boundaries of human vision are being pushed ever further back, and the scope of human hopes brought ever nearer, to reveal the great future which shines for everyone who believes in his name: who is the Christ.