Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 2012
I don’t like having the lights on in my office. Fr. Nadeau used to flip them on, figuring I had forgotten, until I explained. They are the fluorescent kind that make you feel like you are in a terrarium – some kind of exotic species on display. And no, that is not appropriate.
Today Jesus teaches us that he is the light that has been sent into the world – the light of truth. But some, he says, prefer to stay in darkness. They do not like the light.
I was thinking to myself, well, maybe they think that his life, his truth is a fluorescent kind of light. The kind of light that you just use to display things that are pretty, like holiness and virtue.
A light for those who have everything together and are ready for everyone else to stand around and view them. And they perceive his light to be that same harsh and hygienic blue-white light –
a light that reveals every flaw, that is merciless – almost hunting for defects to show the world.
Now, the truth can feel like that. There is a certain merciless quality to the truth. It searches the heart, it probes the mind – it reveals our flaws and weaknesses. It unmasks us and sometimes can leave us feeling weak and vulnerable.
But the light of Christ, the truth that is revealed in Christ, is not harsh and humiliating, it does not degrade us or make us less human, like an interrogation light in a cold cell.
The light of Christ, his truth, is given to us in love, Jesus tells us. It is because God so loved the world that he sent the light, his truth, among us – to set us free and to give us new life. And so the proper metaphor for the light of Christ is the candle, or in the case of the Easter Vigil, the fire, the flame.
And so Church insists that we use candles to light the altar, not light bulbs. And that’s not just out of a sense of nostalgia that we use candles – it is because they are a more full and rich sign and symbol of the light of Christ. I will just point out to you a few ways today.
1. First notice how the candle produces light: by sacrificing its life. The candle does not give us light without burning up its own body, it’s flesh. And so it is a sign to us Christ, who spent himself in order to give us the light of his truth. The candle becomes a sign to us all that the truth, the light of Christ, is found and sustained in sacrifice, by taking up our crosses, as Christ did, and following his example of selfless love.
2. Secondly, notice how the light of the candle is not harsh, but soft and inviting. In fact, it is one of the warmest and most inviting of lights. Rather than revealing every flaw, candlelight hides flaws – that’s why they are favored for dates and for other romantic settings. Everyone looks better by candlelight. In just the same way, the light of Christ, his truth, enlightens our world gently and with dignity and respect – showing us, not so much our flaws as the beauty of the calling that we have received in Christ to become the adopted sons and daughters of God. St. Paul tells us in our second reading today that God is rich in mercy, and that in Christ he showers us with immeasurable riches and kindness. Christ, the light of the nations, has come to earth not as an enemy, but a friend.
3. Lastly, candles give off heat when they burn; unlike fluorescent fixtures, they cannot do otherwise. Plenty a server has figured that out the hard way – hopefully not losing any hair in the process.
And I think that this points us to our bishop’s motto: Live the truth in love. Just as for a candle there can be no light without heat, so for a Christian there can be no truth without love. Jesus shows us that love and truth are not opposed, but follow from one another. It is not that love is irrational and that truth doesn’t have a heart. No, instead, just as light and heat are united in the candle, so God’s love and truth are united in Christ.
How? In that Jesus shows us that the greatest truth is his love for us, and the greatest love is the truth about him. In essence, Jesus shows us is that the truth is biased, horribly biased, in our favor. He is the truth, and he is unabashedly rooting for us, favoring us, loving us. And he calls us to be men and women of the truth in the same way, rooted in love for others.
I think that this final lesson is so important to all of us, who on the day of our baptisms were given a candle and told to keep the flame of faith alive in our hearts, to be a light to the nations. We were not given fluorescent lights, or glow sticks, for that matter. We were given a candle. And the candle is a rich symbol of the way that we are called to enlighten the world: Speaking the truth, not being afraid to speak and live what is true and right and holy – but always doing so in love and with deep concern for others - never use honesty as an excuse to be cruel.
In just a few short weeks we will gather around the Easter fire at the vigil – the Easter candle will be lit from its flames – and then slowly, that light will travel to all corners of the Church as hundreds of candles light up and fill the church with a warm glow. As we journey through lent, working to be open to the Grace of Christ at work in us during this season, let us pray that on that day the warm glow will be more than a nice feeling for a few moments – but that it will be a true sign and symbol of who we are and the way that we embody the light of Christ, the light of his truth and love, that has come into our world.