God’s Eldest Daughter
Being a follower of Christ means going on a journey, and setting out on a journey means that the landscape is forever changing and that your reactions to it are not always predictable. That was true from the beginning. Otherwise, we would have one gospel instead of four, each one of them responding to the life and teachings of Jesus in different ways — minor differences most of the time, huge differences sometimes. And there was that same flexibility in the church, which constantly reinvented itself as it spread from Jerusalem through Asia Minor and Greece and across the whole Roman Empire. Thatis why some traditions which we think were part of Christianity from the start only came along much later as the church absorbed customs from other religions. To show you an example of that, I’m inviting you to take a trip with me this morning through a jumbled landscape of pagan and Christian history that I hope will enrich your understanding of the great holiday we celebrate next week.
I had just started to work on these remarks last week when I suddenly found myself wondering whether any other Christian holiday is as rich in borrowed symbolism as our celebration of Christmas. I couldn’t imagine anything else that would be even close — except Easter — so I decided to take a side trip through a couple of encyclopedias to see how much space each one gives to those two sacred days. I don’t mind interrupting myself. I learned rather late in life that any kind of journey, physical or intellectual, is often much more rewarding if one takes time to make side trips instead of rushing straight ahead.
What I found on my brief excursion was that World Book gives ten and one-half pages to Christmas, only five to Easter. Britannica’s small print gives 3 pages to Christmas, one and one-half to Easter. Exactly the same ratio in both volumes: twice as much space for Christmas and all the borrowed symbolisms that have slowly worked their way into it. I mean to concentrate on just one of those this morning, but I’ll be coming at it indirectly so please help me with good listening.
Some of our calendars inform us that very soon now, when the sun reaches its winter solstice, we are going to have the longest night of the year — but most calendars no longer bother because we hardly notice. Hours of darkness are not as tedious or dangerous as they were for our ancestors, who learned the hard way to rejoice in that miraculous moment when the sun stops running away and starts its slow journey back to bless us. No wonder light so quickly became the supreme symbol of God. For one thing, of course, because light is life. The simplest farmer knew that. It was the sun that brought the rich harvest after the Nile had flooded. And in the great plains by the Tigris and Euphrates, where our ancestors built the first cities, it was when the sun came back from the dark of winter that the seed sprouted and the flocks brought forth their young and there was once again the promise of food. One could not live without the precious light.
And through all our early history, light almost always meant relief from terror. Imagine lying in a cave through a long night, unable to sleep, wondering what predator was making those ominous rustling sounds just beyond the dying embers of the campfire. What would be the most wonderful and welcome of all possible sights? It would have to be the soft gray light of dawn, with its certain promise that in a few minutes, poking up above the horizon, would come the sun itself, the great sun, to make the world light-filled and warm and secure. In some ways, of course, that old anxiety is still in us at times. We have lain in bed, ill or frightened, and felt the dark like a dreadful weight, and longed desperately for the breaking of the day. And when dawn came, the place where we were was the same, but it was not the same — no longer haunted, but pervaded by the inexpressible comfort which light brings.
For one thing, it forever brings back one of our most priceless gifts, the beauty of color. Lost in the darkness, but in the light of day given back to us in the blue of sky, the green of trees and fields, the restless silver of water. And it also brings back form, the shapes of things. I love that place in the beautiful poetry of the book of Job where a nameless poet speaks for: “Job, have you ever in all your life commanded the day to dawn?” and then saying, with obvious joy in what happens at dawn, “Daylight makes the hills and valleys stand out like the folds of a garment, clear as the imprint of a seal on clay.” If even once in your life you have watched darkness dissolve before the blessed light and seen vague masses of shadow turn slowly back into friendly and familiar shapes, you know exactly what that ancient poet felt.
It’s no wonder, then, that light is the Bible’s chief symbol for suggesting the goodness and power of God, from the opening words ofGenesis, where light is the first creation, to the closing words of Revelation , where the heavenly city is described as a place where fear of darkness is gone forever, “for the Lord God will give them light….” It’s the language of symbolism, of course, because we can only explain a mystery in terms of what we know already, and of all the natural gifts we know we know….. light is the greatest . This is why the medieval Italian poet Dante, coming to the end of his long poetic journey through hell, up the mount of purgatory, and into paradise at last, climaxes his epic story with a vision of God as a great pulsing glorious light.
Perhaps only a man who once saw, and then became sightless, could feel the glory of light perfectly. When the blind poet John Milton pictures Satan, the giant ruined angel, soaring through the darkness of space toward the created universe, there comes that incredible moment when he first glimpses God’s bright world of order. “But now at last,” Milton writes, “the sacred influence/ Of light appears, and from the walls of Heav’n/ Shoots far into the bosom of dim Night/ A glimmering dawn…..” And then, moved to rapture, the blind poet opens Book 3 with a magnficent hymn of praise: “Hail, holy light, offspring of Heav’n first-born.” If you are listening, we have almost worked our way around to the title of this sermon. Perfectly well aware that in the poetry of Judeo-Christian religion the first spoken words of creation were “Let there be light,” Milton calls it Heaven’s first-born child. And for the same reason, that quaint and marvelous old preacher, Thomas Fuller, born in the same year as Milton, calls light “God’s eldest daughter.”
Long ago, when the workings of the universe were attributed to many gods, the chief among them would almost always be a sun-god, powerful and good, because how could human beings live at all without the favor of the sun? So, inevitably, people worshipped the sun-god: Ra in Egypt; Shamash in Babylon; Balder in Scandinavia; Ahura-Mazda in Persia; Quetzalcoatl among the Aztecs , Helios among the Greeks, and on and on because without light nothing else is possible. If you are going to worship anything in the physical world, nothing makes more sense than bowing down before the sun. I saw that happening in the islands once. I was walking at dawn on a beach in Maui when I came upon a woman sitting crosslegged on the sand, her face uplifted to the sunrise, beginning her day with a few quiet moments of homage to that great sustainer of life.
So what has all this talk about the winter solstice, and light as God’s first-born child, and light as the supreme symbol of the nature of God — what has all this to do with Christmas coming ten days from now? Well, try to imagine a time, long ago, when the first humans began to notice that during summer in this hemisphere the noonday sun reached a slightly lower point in the sky each day than it did the day before. As its path slowly sank southward, the temperature grew colder and vegetation turned brown and died. If it continued to sink, and passed down behind the southern horizon altogether, everything would die — permanently. But for reasons they didn’t understand that didn’t happen. Each year, in late December, the sun reaches its solstice (the word means “sun-stop”) and starts to rise steadily higher in the sky. It was a guarantee to early humanity that they could turn their faces from cold and dark to the warmth and long light of summer.
For that reason the day of that winter solstice, the birthday of a new summer sun, became a great holiday. The one most familiar to us is the Roman Saturnalia, celebrated with great rejoicing from the 17th to the 24th of December. Schools and businesses shut down, families feasted together and exchanged presents, and a spirit of brotherhood was shown by making slaves temporarily equal with their masters. Keep in mind that these holidays were still going on more than two centuries after the death of Christ, except that by this time Roman soldiers had brought back into the old religion a new wrinkle: the worship of the Persian sun-god, Mithra, whose birthday they decided to celebrate on December the 25th.
For more than 200 years after Christ died this popular religion was one of the church’s greatest competitors throughout the Roman empire. Christians hadn’t figured out a way to match the great birthday celebration for Mithra each year. Part of the problem was that they were at a distinct disadvantage: none of them had the slightest notion when Jesus was born. So the church made a very smart religious and political move — one it would use many timnes later. It won a final victory over Mithraism by simply absorbing it. . Instead of arbitrarily picking a birthday for Jesus, they chose the day on which the Roman Empire had so long observed the birthday of the sun — December 25th — and they wisely kept most of the customs: schools and business holidays, gift-giving, expressions of brotherhood, and the symbolism of light.
Only now, the original worship of the sun-god was quickly forgotten, and lights at Christmas came to symbolize Christ as the Light of the World. So beneath our joyful celebration of the birth of the Son of God you can hear, if you listen carefully, the distant echoes of a far older ritual, celebrating of the birth of the sun of our solar system. One gives life to our bodies, the other gives life to our spirits. It almost seems appropriate it seems that the ceremonies of two religions were combined.
No one has spoken more beautifully of those last two elements of Christmas — light and brotherhood — than one of our own poets, Archibald MacLeish. His heart moved, as mine was, by the astronaut photograph of our bright world hanging in eternal night, he wrote the words I hear in my head each time I look at that picture: “For the first time in all of time men have seen Earth: seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles, but seen it from the depths of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small, as even Dante had never dreamed of seeing it; as the 20th century philosophers of absurdity and despair were incapable of guessing it might be seen.
“And seeing it so, one question came to the minds of those who looked at it. ‘Is it inhabited?’ theys aid to each other, and laughed — and then they did not laugh. What came to their minds a hundred thousand miles and more into space — ‘halfway to the moon’ as they put it — what came to their minds was the life on that little, lonely, floating planet: that tiny raft in the enormous empty night…..To see Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”
As Christmas comes….remember those words.
The church began to play and sing joyous music when it took over the old Roman festival, and we will honor that tradition next Sunday when Bob Scott will bring orchestra and choir together for a double service of glorious music. If half of you will come at 9, and if Bob can persuade both choir and orchestra to park across the way, on Cypress, we may have enough room for our visitors.
Increase in our hearts a longing for human brotherhood, Eternal
God, as we celebrate the coming of One who wished to be the
“light” of all the world. May that light be in us through this
holy season, and through all days to come. Amen.
give us the great holy season which will climax on Christmas Day. I hope that knowing this small part of the long evolution of our coming holy day will only make it richer and more meaningful than ever.
As you know, I like to end sermons with some reasonably dramatic punch line, so I tried all week to come up with one. I didn’t make it, so this one will have to end with a quiet announcement: I’m through.
Special music, symbolic of great joy, became popular as soon as the church took over the old Roman festival, and we will honor that tradition next Sunday when Bob Scott will bring orchestra and choir together in a double service of wonderful music. The 9 o’clock service is not quite as crowded as the 10:30; it might be easier than to park and to find a seat.
Surrounded as we are by the other symbols of Christmas, greeting cards
and carol singing, mistletoe and Santa Claus and deeper feelings of
brotherhood than at any other time of the year, keep us mindful, gracious
God, that we celebrate the coming of one who was called “the light of the
world.” May that light be in us, through this holiday season and through
all days to come. Amen.