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"Reflected Light" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - Christmas Eve - December 24, 2017

posted Jan 3, 2018, 9:58 AM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Jan 5, 2018, 8:31 AM ]

I treasure the Christmas Eve Vigil because of the ritual that comes next: singing “Silent Night” as we each light our candles in a darkened sanctuary.  We stand there, the glow of a hundred candles dance across our faces; a moment of profound beauty.

Silent night

Holy night

Son of God

Oh love's pure light

At the ordination of Josh Simon a few weeks ago, the preacher commented on that sacred moment.  She said preachers and choirs - who face the congregation at the candlelight vigils - have the best view of the service.  And it’s true: seeing the congregation lit this way is stunning.

Her comment prompted me to think about why this moment stands out as enchanting.  Why does this play of light and shadow across the face seem so beautiful?

In this ritual we enact spiritual truths.  At the highpoint in our readings we lit the white candle - the Christ candle - symbolizing the light Jesus brought into the world.  And we hear from the Gospel of John, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” And then we take the light and pass it from person to person until all hold a glowing candle.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  At a basic level our candle lighting brings to life the reading from the Gospel.

And yet it goes deeper.  Our faces light up with the reflected light of the candles, the reflected light of Christ.  It recalls for me the opening story of Genesis, when God created humanity.  “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Something about us reflects the glory and majesty and love of God.  Tonight, in flickering light, we make real and visible the way our very being reflects the light of God.

What would it be like if we could see each other this way all the time?  What if we could see neighbors we don’t know as reflecting God’s light?  What if we could look at family members we disagree with and see the light of God in them?  What if we saw in the most disagreeable person - the person who so annoys us - the image of God, the light of Jesus in them dispelling our darkest thoughts?

Candle light helps us see this truth in a way that the bright lights don’t.  And that’s because I see more than the light of Jesus on our faces; shadows dance on them too.  The interplay of light and shadows make the moment beautiful.

Too often in life we try to chase the shadows away - to deny all the things that don’t work out, to hide our failures and limitations, to repress our uncertainties and doubts, to pretend that all is sunny.

Recently I heard about Jared Fenton, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania.  He spoke of the way his fellow classmates took on a “Penn Face.”  Students at the university coined the term for the false mask of certainty many wear, the pretense of life being perfect, as if pressure and doubt and shame don’t exist.  As one student explained, “[People] start out pre-med and are like, ‘This isn’t cool enough.’ They’re like, ‘I need to get a degree from Wharton as well’ and so they end up taking 6.5 or 7 courses per semester when normal course load is 4.”  All the while, students pretend all is well, a perfect smile on their Penn Face.

Of course this isn’t limited to the University of Pennsylvania.  Students at lots of colleges could coin the term for themselves: Colombia Face, Yale Face, Madison Face.  But the need to maintain a perfect face affects us long after college too.  Many of us struggle with a need to keep up a pretense of perfection, a Success Face.

The cost of all of this came out dramatically at the University of Pennsylvania: seven suicides in just two years, double the national average.  It can also be traced in the toll of addictions, binge drinking, and eating disorders as people try to keep up an impossible image.  And of course we see these issues not just in college students but well beyond, in the lives of our friends, ourselves, as we try to keep up a Success Face.

Jared Fenton took action at the University of Pennsylvania by gathering students to talk about what they really faced.  Gathering under the motto, “Be open.  Be real,” students share with one another the stress and shame and uncertainty that they normally hide; their shadows.

Fenton called the effort “Penn Reflect” because students reflect on their experience.  But I like the way that name plays off of perfection.  As if we faced a choice between “perfection” and “reflection.”  The face of perfection sought to chase away the fears and doubts, an impossible task resulting in a false face, a Success Face.  But reflection comes from being honest about our fears and shames and uncertainties, so that like when we hold our candles, we see beauty in the dance of light and shadows.

The birth of Jesus might seem like an odd time to tease out this difference between perfection and reflection.  And yet, the life of Jesus speaks to this difference.  People in his day expected a messiah to come: descended of David; royalty, born to rule; conquering enemies; restoring Israel as a kingdom; strength and might; a perfect and powerful man.  Jesus failed spectacularly.  Scandal surrounded Jesus’ conception, neighbors whispered about the girl who called herself a pregnant virgin; his homeless parents sought shelter with animals, Joseph’s own family wouldn’t even open the doors of their homes when Mary went into labor.  And, as we know, Jesus went from failure to failure: rejected by his hometown, hanging out with unemployed and unsuccessful characters, getting in trouble with the authorities, and in the end, abandoned by shifty friends.  Ultimately, instead of hailed as a hero, he died like a common criminal.

Not very successful; certainly not perfect.  And yet in that utter lack of perfection, people saw in Jesus the reflected light of God.  As Paul wrote to the Colossians, “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God” (1 Col. 1:15).

But what does it mean that God chose to be revealed in a life marked by scandal, failure, and shame?  That God chose to be seen in a life that wasn’t perfect?

What a relief to know God doesn’t need perfection!  We don’t have to go around with our Success Face firmly in place; because holiness doesn’t have to come at the cost of our humanness.  We can have fears and doubts, scandals and shocks, just like Jesus.  Instead of perfection, God calls us to reflect love.

This night, as you hold your candle, see in the dancing light and shadows on all the faces around you the truth of the Gospel: God doesn’t demand perfection, but calls us to reflect love in the world.  Alleluia and Amen.


  • Dent, Mark, “‘Penn Face’ and the ‘social’ Ivy’s suicide problem, and how students are fighting back,” Dec. 11, 2015.

  • Walden, Kevin, “Penn Reflect Challenges Students ‘Be Open. Be Real,’” The Daily Pennsylvanian, Sept. 26, 2016.