Since our church has as its patron Saint John the Evangelist, we always keep the Sunday following Saint John’s Day (27th December) as our patronal festival. Here’s what Mother Anne-Marie said on the occasion.
If you were with us over Christmas, we seemed to have a theme in the talks and sermons – at least at the Christingle and Midnight Mass – that of light and darkness. It wasn’t planned. In fact, after my talk at the Christingle service, Fr Jerry said, “you’ve stolen some of my midnight sermon!” You see there was no conferring – the theme emerges from the readings and what we are thinking about – Jesus as the light of the world.
These themes of light and dark interweave in the writings of St John the Evangelist whose feast we keep today. At midnight mass we heard the great Prologue to his Gospel – “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. Today in his first letter we hear “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all”. These days we hear the phrase “God is love” banded about a lot and it is a comforting, cuddly, warm sort of phrase, also coming from the pen of John, though he didn’t mean it in the rather bland cuddly way it is used today. He was talking of a costly love which involved an agonising death on a cross.
We don’t hear or use “God is light” with quite the same frequency as “God is love”, but it is an equally valid description of God. And in the opening chapter of John’s first letter, which we heard today, it is used to expose our darkness, the things within we don’t want anyone to know about.
St John’s Day, the patronal festival for this church, is actually on 27th December, which isn’t a brilliant day to have a big celebration in church for the saint to whom our church is dedicated, because let’s face it, how many of us think of coming out to church two days after Christmas?! Well some of us do – I think there were three of last Wednesday! So, we are keeping it today. But in actual fact, the Church, the Anglican Church that we belong to, does think we should be in church on 27th, because it is a red letter day, a major feast of the church.
St John’s Day on 27th is one of three red letter days which follow Christmas Day, and they have been major feasts of the church since the 5th Century. And they are not accidental. They provide an opportunity to reflect on what the incarnation, the coming of God as a human being, really means for his followers and the world.
So, on the day immediately following Christmas, the 26th, we remember Stephen the first Christian martyr. He reminds us of the cost of following Jesus. The 27th is St John – and I’ll come back to that in a moment. The third day after Christmas, the 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, remembering all the young children killed by Herod, the part of the Christmas story we prefer to forget, and a reminder today of all those innocents, both children and adults who suffer at the hands of others.
The stoning of St Stephen and the massacre of the Holy Innocents are two reminders of darkness in the world and in the human soul, and between them, like a filling in a sandwich, is the Feast of John the Evangelist, with his imagery of light in the darkness. Two men with darkness in their souls were behind the tragedy of Stephen and the massacre of the innocent children. The man behind the stoning of Stephen was Saul, who was on a religious crusade to put down the followers of Jesus. And the King who ordered the massacre of the children was the tyrant Herod. As far as we know Herod remained a wicked tyrant, but Saul became a man transformed by the light of Jesus Christ. It is as if St John’s Day itself on the 27th December shines as a light between the two gloomy days when we remember a stoning and a massacre.
In the first chapter of his first letter, St John proclaims, “If we say we have fellowship with him (with Jesus) while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true.” And he also says, “If we say we have no sine, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” John urges us to walk in the light and allow the blood of Jesus to cleanse us from our sins.
Most of the darkness in our world stems from people, people like us. We cannot divorce ourselves from the darkness within us. We may think that we are good people or that we at least try hard, and maybe we do, but if we say we have no sin, no darkness, we deceive ourselves. Jesus shines a light into our inner darkness. He did that to Saul. On the road to Damascus the light from heaven which fell around Saul was so bright that it blinded him, but he emerged from it a changed man. Saul recognised Jesus and who Jesus was, and immediately changed his behaviour, changing from being the persecutor Saul to Paul, the great proclaimer of the good news of Jesus Christ.
St John’s Day is a beacon of light between two dark feasts which follow Christmas. On St Stephen’s Day we are brought face to face with what following Jesus might mean, and we are brought face to face with the darkness that can enter a person’s soul if they hate as much as Saul did. On Holy Innocents Day we are brought face to face with all the evil in the world that it seems impossible to eradicate. We know children, innocent children, still suffer and die – we look today on the Rohingya escaping persecution and massacres in Myanmar, and then having to live in disease ridden camps in Bangladesh. We feel helpless against such wickedness.
But St John proclaims that the light shines into the dark of the world – there is hope, and that hope comes because the light shines into the dark recesses of our own souls.
Two or three of you know that we had a problem before Christmas with a rodent invasion in the vicarage, and it meant I crawled around the kitchen shining a light, a torch, under our kitchen units. Now although they get swept under from time to time, I don’t usually shine a torch under there, and of course what did I see? Well I didn’t see any dead rodents thank goodness, but I did see the detritus of life – broken glass and crockery in the far corners, a long-discarded banana skin that had gone black and whose stalk had split and made it look positively devilish with horns! I saw dust and grime and dirt. Shine the light of Christ into our own inner darkness and what do you see?
What we see in both cases, in the world and in us, is shocking. I hope we find it shocking because if we find it shocking we are not deceiving ourselves; I hope we find it shocking because as we look at the world we can see how the traits in us, like self-importance and anger, are the same traits in others that cause much of the suffering in the world; and I hope we find it shocking because as we look out on our world of suffering we see that there is more we can do to change it – if we don’t deceive ourselves. It maybe by political action, volunteering, giving money, praying with passion. Jesus came at Christmas as a helpless babe to save the world. He needs our help.
The three feasts that follow Christmas Day shine a light on our world, show up its pain and its anguish, but also proclaim the way it can be saved through the light of Christ. We like Saul can be transformed, and the world too can be transformed if those who follow Christ are active and transformative in that world, and bring others to the light. St John gives us the imagery to take with us on our quest – God is light, and we walk in the light. We are not deceiving ourselves when we are aware that we are part of the problem, and we can then walk determinedly in the light knowing we can also be part of the solution, and as we enter a New Year, make the world a better place.