This morning I woke up around 6:30 am it was completely dark in my house, sometime around 7:00 the first rays of sun broke over the hilltops and by 7:30 sun was up. There was an obvious progression from dark to light, a progression which could be predicted and timed. We are all used to the sunrise, we understand that when the first rays of sunlight come over the horizon, morning is not far behind. This is the illustration behind Paul’s comments in Romans 13:11-14,
“As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.” (Rom. 13:11-14 CEB)
What confuses many, though, is that they cannot separate the dawn of Christ with the physical dawn, the physical dawn is a timely action which can be predicted, Christ’s dawn is not. It is easy to recognize that Paul understands Jesus’ work on earth as the first rays of light breaking over the sky, announcing that the light of day is soon to come. Our ability to celebrate Christmas begins in the understanding that in Jesus’ birth we see the first glow of morning, in his suffering death and resurrection the first streaks of light come over the horizon. However, I think this is where many people get lost and simply allow the physical word to take over instead of listening to Paul. Many assume that just like the morning sun, Christ’s dawn will simply move on according to the hour and at the right time of day Christ will return bringing the full light of day. This is the mindset behind popular fictions like Left Behind. The idea that God is simply on a set timetable and is counting down to zero hour for the world to end. This is the rationale behind predictions the world will end on a certain date.
I do not think God works like that and I think Paul points us a different direction in Romans 13. Paul understood the night was soon to be over and Jesus was about to return, not because it was part of God’s timetable, but, because of the growth of the Church. He understood that the Church was growing and “putting on Jesus” (v. 14). He understood that as the Church clothed itself in Jesus, she actually bringing in the light of day. The light of Christ does not grow like clockwork as the light of the sun does; the light of Christ works through us as we throw off the works of darkness, the lifestyle of hatred and material selfishness, and put on the works of love. This is the argument of Romans 13, we owe each other the debt of love, we must seek to pay love at every turn. To this end we throw off the deeds of darkness and night, and as we do so we bring the light of dawn into our world. This is what Paul saw happening in his time and what he presumed would continue to happen until with the spread of the light Jesus returned.
Bringing the Light at Christmas
Christmas is often celebrated with lights, acknowledging this idea that new light has come into the world and that we are ready to receive it; but, how does this translate into modern culture? I may easily be encouraged by twinkling light displays; but, what can I do to bring the light of love into the world at Christmas time? I think the first and most obvious answer is to work to eliminate the materialism so present in our cultural celebrations of Christmas. This morning I watched as a panel discussed materialism in Christmas; they reported that the average American spends $800 on Christmas, and will not pay off the debt until March. This is ridiculous! Their question was how much can a person spend before their celebration is tainted by materialism. I believe this question leads to the wrong answers, the first question can never be “how much”, if I am asking how much I am already making possessions central. If I begin with, “how can I introduce the light of love into this individual’s Christmas celebration”, I may respond that presents will not do. If I ask how can I bring the light of love into the lives of my family, friends, and neighbors, I may have to respond that it is more important to open my Christmas dinner to my neighbors than that my children get presents. Do not assume presents are necessary, do not assume there is a minimum amount to be spent, assume that your responsibility is to bring light into the world. Perhaps my responsibility to my children, either this year or in the future, is to forgo presents altogether; perhaps, my responsibility will be to be lavish, but, either must be the response to love. I do not mean simply an expression of my love toward my children (or anyone else in my life); gift-giving must be an expression that also helps the receiver understand love. If I give my children toys I might be expressing love toward them, but, if instead, I buy food to have dinner with neighbors I am cultivating their love for others, a far better gift. Gift-giving is an important expression at Christmas, but, we must consider what our gifts say. Are we simply saying I can read your list and I care enough to buy something, or, are we saying “I love you and want to experience that love”. Spreading the light of love at Christmas must go deeper than expressing my love to a person, it must help that person to participate in the love of neighbor.
Right now our headlines are filled with violence, war, fear, and isolation. It is ironic that as we celebrate the ultimate action of acceptance, we debate exclusion; as we celebrate the ultimate act of peace, we discuss violence. Christmas has lost something when it is only a celebration among immediate families. Christmas is about expanding the love kindled in our family’s throughout the year, not about try to rekindle love within the family. To truly celebrate Christmas, we must move beyond the materialism of giving to family and friends and toward the coming dawn of spreading light throughout the world. Paul’s vision was that the Church would continue to shine forth in the light of love until the day broke on the world. This means that each one of us, every day must put aside our selfish impulses, and work to become a person who emulates and emanates love. We must seek to change ourselves into a complete expression of love, so that, we can be spread throughout our communities and shine the light of day.