At the beginning of a new year, ‘change’ is on our minds. We consider dieting, exercising, forming healthy habits and other disciplines. And maybe even some plans are made. A couple weeks ago, we ordered a new scale. And it arrived promptly at our door on New Year’s Eve. Good timing. Now, will it work? And I don’t mean the scale.
I saw this funny cartoon in one of my social media feeds. It shows lots of people crowded in a church building all leaning intentionally to block the door. Outside knocking on the door is a figure that is supposed to be Jesus. The caption underneath reads: “Don’t allow Him in. He will change everything!”
Church people aren’t usually the type to welcome change. We don’t normally associate Jesus with change. Or, rather, we don’t acknowledge that walking with Jesus will.
And yet, Bishop Michael Pryse confesses that in this COVID time he has seen something different in the Eastern Synod. He writes, “In the last nine months, I have learned that our church has a much greater capacity to change than I ever thought imaginable. We pivoted and established new models for ministry in a matter of weeks. We figured out new ways to engage in worship, learning, pastoral care and outreach ministries! I was amazed!
“And I hereby pledge to never again utter the words, ‘How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb?’ ‘Change?’ The last nine months have proven that we can, and we did!”
How does growth and change happen in each of us? And do we want to let this growth happen in our lives? Or do we resist it at every possible turn?
A cherished tradition at Christmas is the candlelight service, when worshippers gather in a darkened room and share the light of Christ. Passing candlelight is not easy but is also the way the One Light is conveyed to the whole assembly. When everyone’s candles are lighted, we all participate in the One Light of Christ. The small light we hold is no different from the first candle, the source. We are not Jesus, but we participate in his energy, his life and his light.
Symeon the New Theologian said, “Just as if you lit a flame from a flame, it is the whole flame you receive.”
The Baptism of our Lord indicates that, in our baptism, we have the capacity to experience, first-hand, God’s presence directly. Our very lives reflect the ‘whole flame’ that we have received. To what degree we experience God depends on God’s loving initiative—grace, on the one hand; and our response on the other hand.
Sixteenth century Spanish mystic John of the Cross takes up the analogy of a smudgy window to make the connection between God’s grace and our response. A smudgy window, he says, is less able to transmit the sunlight shining through it. The more cleaned and polished the window, the more identical it appears with the rays of sunshine. While the nature of the window is distinct from the sun’s ray, a clean window better participates in the ray of sunlight that passes through it.
It is not easy to wipe the smudge off. Sin is so entrenched within our ego that it might very well take a lifetime and beyond for all the dirt to be cleaned out. Since the time John of the Cross mused about smudge and light centuries ago, other poets and writers have commented on how the light gets to us and is reflected from us.
More recently, Leonard Cohen wrote about how there is a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in. Whether it is through our weakness or strength, we turn towards the light in whatever way we can, to do better. The pinprick of light already shining in us slowly burns and cleanses. And we change.
In the end, the personal encounter with God changes us, so that others may experience Christ more fully in us. Our job, in the end, is not to horde the light for ourselves. The experience of the Christmas Eve candlelight service would be spoiled if no one passed their candlelight along. Our purpose is to share the candlelight to our neighbour, so they, too, may have the joy of holding and reflecting the light of Christ in their lives.
As I said, passing the light is not easy. It’s tricky. And never a perfect art form. Sometimes it doesn’t work out so well for us, or for our neighbour. Wax gets spilled. Wicks get snuffed. But, still, we try and try again.
In the end, our participation in God’s energy, life and light means more than dwelling on debates and disagreements about our essence and/or Christ’s essence. It’s about participating in, and being changed because of, our personal experience with the Light – with Jesus. Twentieth-century American poet, W.H. Auden, offers what I consider a prayer for our imperfect response to, and sharing of, God’s grace:
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
 Bishop Michael Pryse, “Adieu—‘to God’—2020” Canada Lutheran (Vol.35, No.8, December 2020) p.30.
 Symeon the New Theologian was an eleventh century Byzantine Christian monk and mystic revered to this day by Eastern, Orthodox Christians. Cited in Richard Rohr, “Christ Born In Us” Incarnation (Daily Meditations, December 25, 2020), www.cac.org
 Cited in Rohr, ibid., December 10, 2020.