The Mystery of Christmas Past and Present: The Light Who Transcends the Impending Darkness
Mark Dankof for News and Views at
An audible, bitter wind accompanies me on this Philadelphia night which makes the transition from Christmas Eve to the wee hours of Christmas in the year 2002. The wind seems to travel wherever it wills, in tandem with a snowfall moving in relentless horizontal sheets. A fog-like aura enshrouds the desolate scene around my apartment complex. My own apartment is in total darkness, as the fog and the snow have reduced visibility to virtual zero. While fumbling for the key to open the main security door, I become conscious of my hands' increasing sense of numbness from the cold. Along with the sensation of ears beginning to freeze, the onset of internal chills and tremors remind me that I have reached the destination of home after work in the nick of time. On this night, there is the sense of a vast, internal void over having been unable to attend my Christmas Eve Candlelight Eucharist and the accompanying contemplation of the First Advent of Christ because of the responsibilities of work. On the other hand, given the grimness of the inclement weather and my physical struggle with influenza, there is an admittedly welcome relief in having reached friendly confines amidst howling winds and the ever-present darkness.
The darkness permeates my bedroom as I enter it in total silence. After downing two Tylenol tablets with piping hot tea, it seems appropriate to place the Deutsche Grammophon CD entitled Gregorian Chant: Third Christmas Mass into my stereo on the night stand next to my bed. As the haunting voices begin their nighttime praise of the Holy Trinity with the Introit and the Kyrie, I light a kerosene lamp strategically placed on the basement apartment window sill which faces due north. It seems that the introduction of this physical light combines with the Nativity Mass of the Monks of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Martin to stave off the ravages of the wind, the cold, and the night. My spiritual and physical tremors seem to be in abatement. In closing my eyes for but a moment, I am conscious of the Divine Presence in my bedroom on this dark evening in suburban Philadelphia. As my mind begins to wander through a long litany of Christmases Past, it finally settles upon another dark night, halfway around the world almost a quarter of a century ago. The haunting harmony and reverberation of the voices of the Monks facilitates the memories which have been imprinted, and which do not fade.
The forbidding, howling wind; the incessant snow; and the dimness or darkness of alleyways and narrow streets is now Christmas Eve of 1978 in Tehran. I have been informed by a fine German Lutheran pastor named Johann Mueller of a discreet location selected for the commemoration of the birth of Christ in the reading of the Word and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. On this blessed night, however, I am on edge. The political turmoil in the city and the tension produced in the hearts and minds of its inhabitants is palpable. Impending, unpredictable acts of spontaneous violence seem to be lurking just around the corner of every intersection and street in this increasingly hostile locale. Mueller's furtive relocation of his Christmas Eve Candlelight Mass has obviously been undertaken with this in mind. As I follow his written instructions for locating the service, it occurs to me that a single wrong turn will not only cause me to miss the Eucharist, but potentially place me in an unfamiliar area of Tehran not the least hospitable to a wayward American in the midst of the incipient stages of a revolution. I begin to pray for God's guidance in the execution of each turn of the Persian Peykan I am driving, occasionally glancing at the Pastor's handwritten note provided for safe navigation of the neighborhood. The note says that I am to:
. . .proceed south on Roosevelt Avenue, crossing Takhte Jamshid Avenue (the American Embassy will be on your right hand side). Crossing Shahreza Avenue, you will proceed south on Saadi Avenue. After passing two major intersections with lights, you will turn west on Khaneghah Street. Count four kuchehs [alleyways]. Make a left and an immediate right. The house you seek will have a grey Rambler Aria parked in front of its security wall. Press the button for entry. Upon entry, as you proceed to the front door, notice the small window on the left. It faces due north and will have a lighted kerosene lamp placed in it. The light therein is the confirming sign that you have arrived at the safe location. In Christ-Mueller.
Unbelievably, I arrive at the destination without a hitch. Parallel parking on the street is immediately followed by the sensation that the wind is capable of dismantling the tin-metal Peykan in the next gust. The parked grey Rambler Aria in front of the security wall indeed pinpoints the location of the spiritual shelter and refuge I seek from the night's harrowing automobile journey in the city. And I see the light emanating from what proves to be a kerosene lamp in the window to the left of the front door which opens for me upon the press of a button. Mentally, I note that Mueller is incredibly precise. The light in the window does indeed face due north.
As the wind assaults the perimeter of this secluded location with each new burst, the snow continues to arrive from the heavens, blowing horizontally across a grim urban landscape gripped by a tension bordering on strangulation. The darkness in the neighborhood seems both physical and spiritual. The sense of foreboding is simply inescapable. All of this contrasts with the aura permeating the interior of the house itself. In what was a spacious front room, a conversion to a worship sanctuary has taken place. A portable wooden altar has been vested in white paraments embroidered in Christological insignia. In the center of the altar is a glistening gold cross. On either side of the cross are stationed red poinsettia plants. On the far ends of the altar, the Gospel and Epistle candles are positioned and lit. Above the altar, the Crucified Christ looks down upon Pastor Mueller and a mere handful of his original faithful in the city, suspended from the house ceiling by a make-shift wire arrangement. The nails in His hands and feet are visible for those gathered in front of the altar. The motifs of body and blood are reinforced by the silver chalice and plate placed on the top of the altar.
Pastor Mueller stands in front of the altar. The handful of communicants stand in front of him in a symmetrical straight line. Mueller is vested with alb and cincture. Over the alb is a strikingly beautiful chausible, a brilliant white with gold embroidered Christological symbols consisting of the Cross, the Chi-Rho, and the Alpha and Omega Greek lettering which reprise the literary description of Christ found in the Apostle John's Apocalypse on Patmos. Suddenly I notice that there is no light source in the room emanating from electrical power. The light extant comes only from the Gospel and Epistle candles and the hand-held candles of each of the communicants, of which I am one.
Mueller's wire-rimmed bifocal glasses are perfectly positioned on his face. The impassive facial expression and the adherence to the precisions of rubrics in the altar paraments and his vestments would convey a forbidding sterility to outsiders to the German Lutheran version of Christianity. But to the small gathered faithful this night, they convey a solid, unwavering foundation in the midst of a sea-change of danger, uncertainty, and impending darkness.
He proceeds to read the Gospel of John, chapter 1, which speaks of the appearance of the Divine Logos in history, the Light who has overcome the Darkness which cannot comprehend Him. Completing this Gospel account for Christmas Eve, he then pauses to look at the remnant of what was a thriving congregation. Most of it has already left this city and country hurriedly. Mueller's eyes thoughtfully penetrate those of his gathered with both insight and compassion. As the poignancy of the moment begins to build to a point perilously close to the unbearable both for pastor and flock, he begins to speak his final, brief homily while there is yet time to do so:
I thank all of you for coming. I am amazed that twelve of you managed to arrive here amidst the dangers of this city at this hour. This shall be the last gathering of this congregation to celebrate the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. I suspect that one year from now, those of us still on this side of eternity will be scattered around the world. I know that each person here is developing plans to depart this place very suddenly. I also suspect that events taking place in this country tonight and in the days and night ahead will affect our lives without ceasing until the Second Coming of our Lord, whose birth we celebrate this evening. It is my prayer that He shall not tarry. As for the rest of us, you and me, we must cling to the Light who has entered the Darkness of this world, and Who has overcome it. There is a new, impending darkness enveloping this city and the world. The Confessing Church of our Lord is threatened by danger and violence here and elsewhere, as well as by the spirit of decadence and complacency which serve as an increasing and malevolent influence in the Western world. Tonight, as followers of Jesus Christ indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God, we must resist these demonic trends and serve as those who testify to the Light, even at the point of death. Look for and follow the Light this dark night, and all the dark days and nights that may yet come, as we anticipate the Day of Light when history shall end and the Incarnate Logos of God will return for His people and the beginning of a Kingdom of Light that shall never end. Amen.
The Gospel and Epistle candles on the Altar seem to flicker more frequently, along with the hand-held candles of the faithful. The percussive sound of the brutal night wind is on the increase; the light in the altar space seems dimmer. The twelve are instructed to follow the Pastor in an oral reading of the bedrock creedal theology of the ancient, apostolic church. The voices operate in unison, accompanied by a reverberating echo produced by the stark walls of this secluded place. Past, present, and future become consummate in the words which confess:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three Eternals, but one Eternal. As there are not three Uncreated nor three Incomprehensibles, but one Uncreated and one Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords, but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord, So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, There be three Gods or three Lords. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone, not made nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another; But the whole three Persons are coeternal together and coequal, so that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped. He, therefore, that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity. Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood. Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but one Christ: One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God; One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead; He ascended into heaven; He sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty; from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies and shall give an account of their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.
With the haunting, echoing conclusion of the Athanasian Creed, the Gospel and Epistle candles on the Altar remain lit as the sole source of light in the room. The twelve hand-held candles are extinguished before the reception of this last Supper. The reading of the Words of Institution and the distribution of bread and wine again make the mystery of the Incarnate Logos a present reality in time and space, even as the past is remembered and the future anticipated. My own eyes remain transfixed upon the Crucified Christ suspended above the Altar as Mueller's voice provides the last punctuation mark for the evening, with all the finality it can convey:
May the True Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you steadfast unto Life Everlasting. Go in Peace, and on this very dark and forbidding night, seek the Light, testify to the Light, rejoice in the Light, and follow the Light, until He comes again.
There is no time to speak to anyone, to convey final blessings or to bid farewell. I have an overwhelming feeling of the need to walk quickly and furtively back to the parked Peykan on the street. Once outside the security wall, a sense of danger and foreboding has returned. My steps become longer and faster. It is darker outside. The strength of the audible, howling wind has increased. The horizontally blowing snow stings my eyes and face with renewed zeal as I approach the car. I notice several people ominously lingering in the area without apparent good purpose, only a block away. In praying for an unimpeded, safe arrival at the car, an unfrozen lock, and a quick engine start, my mind deliberately repristinates the final words of Mueller's benediction, ". . .seek the Light, testify to the Light, rejoice in the Light, and follow the Light, until He comes again." Calmness and peace return, but I remain conscious of the incessant sound of crunching snow and ice underneath my Red Wing boots with each stride and step. I hear it again and again and yet again.
The sound of crunching snow becomes ever more proximate, even as the voices of the Monks of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Martin reach the conclusion of The Third Christmas Mass. I am startled in the awakening realization that I have been transported once again in time and space to the beginning of the 21st century and to a basement apartment bedroom in suburban Philadelphia on yet another dark Christmas Eve night permeated with wind and snow. The light generated by my kerosene lamp on the window sill facing due north is still burning brightly. Suddenly I become conscious of the fact that the sound of footsteps is an indication that someone has been walking just past my bedroom window at ground level in the howling wind, obscured from my sight by the night fog and steady snowfall. This time, for reasons not completely clear, I am not alarmed.
Suddenly, I am completely awakened by the sound of my security door buzzer ringing. Who needs access to this place on this sort of night who actually belongs here? I rise from the bed, walking out of the bedroom, through the living room, out the front door, and up the steps to the main access door to the building. It proves to be Reggie, a 7 year old African-American kid who lives a floor above me. The darkest hue of his skin is accentuated by the whitest teeth betrayed by a wide grin at my appearance at the door. Dressed in a Philadelphia Eagles jersey possessing the number 22 and the name of the great running back Duce Staley, along with stocking cap and mittens, he is nonetheless shivering as the door opens. Next to him is a sled for nighttime navigation of snowy hills, along with his Cocker Spaniel dog, Mutt, similarly overjoyed at my timely arrival.
I cannot resist opening the conversation with, "Let me guess, Reggie. You went sledding tonight with Mutt, forgot your key, and figured you'd rather deal with awakening me than your mother."
"That's basically it, Pastor. I'll tell you something else. Coming back from the sledding hills, I couldn't see the building for the snow and the fog. I got really scared, and then I saw your light in the basement window. I just headed for it. You have that lamp in the window for Christmas?"
I nod in both self-satisfaction and an awe-struck remembrance. "Yes, this marks the 25th straight Christmas Eve and Christmas for me that has involved a light in the window at the north end of my house or apartment. It's kind of a tradition."
The young, innocent black boy looks quizzical. "What's that all about?," he asks in genuine curiosity.
"Sometime I'll tell you the whole story," I reply. "But for tonight, I simply want you to always remember the light in this window, and the way it directed you out of the fog, the snow, and the darkness."
The boy's face takes on a solemnly sincere, appreciative expression. "Before the Lord Almighty Pastor, I ain't never going to forget this night, or that light in the window. I promise. And I always keep my promises to the Lord. I want the Eagles to win the Super Bowl this year."
The once youthful German Lutheran pastor remembers his aging predecessor of light years ago as he looks directly at the youthful, wind whipped black countenance in front of him. "Reggie, I'm going to tell you something. You will someday remember that I said tonight that colder, darker, and terrifying times are just around the corner, worse than tonight's snow and fog. When those times come, you must seek the Light, testify to the Light, rejoice in the Light, and follow the Light, until He comes again."
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