John 1.1-4, 14

I John 1.5-7; 3.19-21

Darkness & Light

Maundy Thursday 2019

In the summer of 1997 my family and I spent six weeks in France and Switzerland as I was on sabbatical following in the footsteps of Protestant reformer John Calvin.  Although we did a fair amount of traveling, Paris was our home base:  we spent three weeks in the 10th arrondisement, near Canal St Martin and not far from where the Bastille once stood, and three weeks in the 17th, close to Parc Monceau and the Arc de Triomphe.  Also in the summer of 1997, my mother’s only brother and my only uncle, Uncle Joe, who was also my godfather, was dying of cancer.  Uncle Joe was a proud Italian Catholic, though a decidedly non-practicing one, yet who held fast to much of the heritage and tradition of Roman Catholicism.  And so it was in his honor, and with prayers for his life, that, early on in that sabbatical, Debbie and I and our two daughters made the pilgrimage to Notre Dame, and yes, lit a candle for him.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you also have lit a candle at Notre Dame; I wonder how many millions of people have done the same over the eight centuries the Cathedral has stood there on the Île de la Cité, lighting a candle for themselves or for a loved one – whether for the celebration of life or in memory of death, for healing, for hope, or just because it feels like the right thing to do, to light a candle when you visit the cathedral, regardless of your faith or spiritual persuasion.

I thought of that candle I lit for Uncle Joe this week, and of the strange irony of those millions of candles lit over the centuries, candles lit in honor of life and memory of loved ones, candles lit as a token of faith or in a spirit of wonder and awe, candles lit as a gesture of worship or adoration, candles lit because the banks of lit and unlit candles both flickered and beckoned, candles lit because this is what visitors to Notre Dame do, candles lit for reasons as varied as the millions who have made the pilgrimage to the cathedral, an then – and then - to watch in horror as the church fell victim to fire earlier this week.  The banks of candles had nothing to do with the fire, thankfully enough, but still, lighting a candle at Notre Dame is every bit as much a part of the visit as marveling at the wonderful church organ, which was spared, and the ornate stained glass and rose windows, which were also spared.  I never did hear the organ played there, but I did light a candle and I have vivid memories and almost as many photos of the windows, and all of them, candles and windows, in their own way use light to tell a story, to carry a message.

So many of Europe’s cathedrals are dank, musty places.  Granite stone upon stone soaring skyward, coming together in a graceful arch that somehow arcs it all together firmly, places of darkness were it not for those ornate windows that filter and interpret the light, and the candles that illumine the interior.  The first of John’s three letters understands the powerful metaphor of light and darkness at work:  Light and dark, truth and lie, good and evil: light overcomes the darkness, truth overcomes the lie, good overcomes evil.  On a night like this one, a night that remembers a betrayal, an arrest, a denial, a night that remembers sleepy disciples, the reality of abandonment and false witness, and yet a night that also recalls a powerfully intimate meal with close friends and companions, the transformation of bread and cup into something that touches eternity, there is so much to take in, that even in the dimmest light, we understand - even if only partially, or as Paul puts it in one of his letters, even if only through a glass darkly.

The idea of the power of light, both its presence and its absence, looms large, both at this moment of worship, and indeed throughout the coming Easter weekend.  We heard the words of the ancient phos hilaron, or gracious light, that goes back for millennia; in fact it is the earliest known Christian hymn outside of those found in the Bible itself.   Our service takes place at eventide, as day yields to night.  Candles will soon flicker in the sanctuary – candles that will be extinguished one by one as light yields to darkness.  The light of scripture will be read even as the shadows – the tenebrae – begin to fall.  Tomorrow’s Good Friday cantata at Trinity Lutheran will also begin while it is still light and then conclude in darkness – and if you attend, you will watch as the shadow of the chancel cross grows in prominence until it dominates the sanctuary and the music fades.  And early Easter morning many of us will gather as the night in turn yields to day, greeting the sun’s rise over the eastern hills of the Connecticut River.  Light and darkness, darkness and light, and always, always, light has the last word, because in the light is truth, in the light is life, in the light is resurrection.

But it is in the darkness that the light is best seen, that its true power is best felt and understood.  The light that flows through the rose windows of the cathedral shines all the brighter the darker the room.  And so as a church, we don’t want to hurry through the growing darkness, both literal and figurative, of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Holy Saturday in order to get to the resurrection.  We need to linger here a while.  We need to consider what it means to live in a dark world.  We need to sit with thoughts of betrayal, of denial, of feeling abandoned, with thoughts of suffering and death, because when we live for a while in the darkness we can better inhabit the reality of the gift of light.  It is when the cathedral is its darkest that the light that plays through the rose window is truly wondrous and life-giving.

And so I lit that candle for Uncle Joe, and while we were still away on sabbatical, he died.  The night before he did, his wife, my Aunt Carol, cradled the receiver of their telephone next to his ear as I told him I loved him one more time, from the other side of the Atlantic.  I thought of him, of course, as I watched the flames lick the tower and rooftop of Notre Dame, and as powerful as those flames of destruction appeared, they pulled me from the darkness of destruction into the light of life, and I gave thanks for the lives of all of those whose lifelights are now extinguished, but whose memories will always burn brightly in our hearts.  Because the light will always shine through the darkness, and the darkness has not, will not, and cannot overcome it.

Amen.

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