Saturday, January 05, 2008

Burden of Light

Doxy’s note: For those of you paying attention to the lectionary, I actually wrote this last year. All I had left to do to finish it was find the Gerald de Nerval quote below---but I never seemed to have time to sit down and listen to the tape again, so I eventually forgot about the essay.

But when I was going through some old files, I found it---and decided it still spoke to me. So as I’ve been packing and moving, I’ve listened to the tape in question about 10 times. (What can I say? I’m easily distracted…) I finally found the quote, and now I’m inflicting it on you, my unsuspecting readers. Happy Last Day of Christmas!

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On Christmas morning, one of the priests at my church reminded me of an old, familiar verse: Jesus said “Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am lowly and humble of heart. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Now I’ve heard that verse at least a thousand times in my life---but this time, something was different.

What I heard was “and my burden is LIGHT.” Not as in “not heavy,” but as in Jesus feeling that his burden was to bring light into the world.

I began to wonder...just how heavy is light?

We don’t often ascribe weight to light. How could something that travels so quickly---286,000 miles a second---be heavy?

But the question that flashed into my head triggered a memory for me. What Jesus’ statement reminded me of was my obsession of years past with the lights on our family Christmas tree.

When my son was an infant, my grandmother bought us this 9-foot-high, artificial Christmas tree. It was a huge, gorgeous tree---seven feet in diameter at the bottom---and that first year, I worked really hard to make it beautiful.

For years, I had collected Christmas tree ornaments, but many of them had been destroyed in a water-in-the-basement incident several years earlier. I didn’t have enough ornaments to cover that enormous tree, so I tried to make up for the lack by covering it in lights, ribbons, and silk poinsettias.

But the lights were key. I wrapped strand upon strand over and through the branches. White lights up the middle, so that there would be a constant glow, and then endless strands of colored lights through the outer branches. That first Christmas, the tree was a work of art---worthy of even Martha Stewart’s praise.

(I can hear those of you who know me in real life laughing uproariously, but I assure you that I do not exaggerate...)

I had set a high bar for myself. The compliments that I received went to my head---especially since it was common knowledge even then that I had no domestic decorating talent.

As a result, I became obsessed with the lights on the Christmas tree.

Over the years, my obsession grew and grew. My family even made jokes about it. Nine years after that first, beautiful tree, it took three days to put the thing together and get the 25 strands of light threaded through it “properly”---at least according to the Christmas Gospel According to Doxy.

By then, I had come to hate Christmas---to dread the annual ritual of assembling and decorating the tree. By the end of the three days, I was emotionally and physically spent, and wanted nothing more to do with the holiday.

My children, who waited with quivering anticipation for Mom to finish lighting the tree so that they could decorate it, usually had to do that decorating alone. Mom couldn’t stand to look at the tree anymore.

Light had become a burden.

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I know that Jesus probably meant his comment to be taken exactly the way he said it---that the life he called us to was not as difficult as we wanted to make it. That his primary instruction from God was “Tell them I love them and they need to love each other!”

But maybe Jesus did mean that light was his burden. That bringing the message that God loves us and wants to know us was a heavy responsibility---precisely because we so often run from relationship with God. I suspect he knew he would be playing to a tough crowd.

Illumination can be excruciating. When you have been cloistered in the darkness for a long time, light is blinding and painful. How many times have you been awakened by someone turning on the light and yelled “Turn it off! Turn it off!”?

The Psalms often speak of people choosing darkness over light, and I can certainly see that tendency in myself.

Recently I was listening to a tape of David Whyte, the English poet, addressing an audience at Bretton Woods in 1994. He quoted the French poet and travel journalist, Gerald de Nerval, who said:

“The seat of the soul is not inside a person, or outside a person, but the very place where they overlap and meet with their world.”

Whyte points out this means that people who refuse to engage in the world might as well have no souls at all, because---according to him---the universe (God?) cannot find you when you are locked in your head and focused on trying to figure out your place in the world.

So often, I think, we would rather stay in the warm, enveloping darkness than come into the light of day and find our souls in the place where our bodies meet the world.

We shy away from the temporary pain of light---and end up losing the joy of being able to see clearly the world around us...or the love in the eyes of those who matter most to us.

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I think of Jesus---coming down from heaven, bearing the burden of light, and hoping beyond hope that we would help him by taking some of it on ourselves. That we would crawl out of the dark caves of our ignorance and anger, blinking in the radiance of the love of God---joyful that we had finally found illumination.

As he hung on the cross, naked and bleeding, he must have felt that he had failed. That he had carried the burden of light for nothing, and that the poor, stupid race to which he had come had willingly chosen the shadows over the clear, beautiful light of God’s grace.

I trust that, in his resurrection, he found that he had been mistaken. That, even if we were unwilling to shoulder the entire burden of the light he brought into the world, he found that a spark had caught and was beginning to burn.

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I gave up lighting the Christmas tree last year. When I left my marriage, I left behind the 9-foot tree and all the ornaments I had collected. I left behind the 25 stands of lights, and I bought a 7½-foot tree that was pre-lit.

I take it out of the box now, assemble it, and plug it in. This year, the kids decorated it completely by themselves. I watched, serene and content to let them do it the way they like it (and the way they think will keep Jasper from eating it....).

They both remarked on how fun it is not to have to wait for me to do the “perfect tree.”

I have found that this tree glows just as brightly as the earlier one, and that it kindles the kind of joy in my heart that I believe Christmas ought to bring to the world.

Light had become a burden---but now it is a joy. Somehow, I think that is the message that Jesus wanted us to know.