There's an old celtic story I like that begins with two brothers who don't get along. They competed with each other most of their lives and when their father died, they fought over who should inherit the family farm. Their bitterness and ill will was fracturing the community in which they lived.
Tired of trying to mend their relationship, the local priest finally said to them both, "look, I'll make you a bet. You each take one half of your father's land and work it, harvesting all that you can. We will divide the big barn into three parts. Whoever fills the barn the most, by sunset on the last day of the season, will win. If one of you wins, then you claim the farm and the other moves to another county. If I win, the two of you will embrace each other, work the farm together and live as brothers should."
"But you have only the land around the church," said one brother. "That's hardly good to grow anything," said the other, "what will you grow?"
"That's not your concern," said the priest. "Do we have a bet?"
The brothers knew the priest could not win, so they leapt at the chance to claim the farm once and for all. They agreed.
All summer they worked, tilling and planting, nurturing their crops. And the priest seemed to do nothing.
As the crops ripened, they harvested all they could, working hard from dawn to dusk, one eye on their work, the other on their competition. Still, the priest did nothing.
The barn became increasingly full and the two brothers seemed so close, one could hardly tell who might win. But the priest's part of the barn remained empty.
On the very last day, as the sun set, the brothers bundled in the last of their crops. The priest was nowhere to be seen. The brothers laughed and waited impatiently to measure their harvests, confident that each was the winner.
But just as the last bright rays of the sun shone on the barn door, the priest appeared. He walked straight into the barn, took a lantern from his pack and lit it. The light from the lamp filled the barn, illuminating even the darkest corners.
The brothers realized the priest had won. Looking at their great harvest by the light of the priest's lamp, they also realized the foolishness of their quarrel. Inspired by the light, their love for one another became a bright light in their community.
I know what you're thinking: boy, those clergy are smart! No? Oh, well, then maybe you're thinking that it was just a trick on the priest's part and you can't believe that the two men fell for it or gave in quite so easily.
But that's the thing about light. We take it so for granted. We can easily forget its power to illuminate truth and wisdom as well as "stuff."
The Gospel of John doesn't have a narrative birth story for Jesus. Instead, John talks about "the Word" become flesh and how "the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world" (John 1:9). Jesus, John says, is the light which shows us how to live. Jesus, John says, makes God "known" to us.
The candles we light at Christmas shine on more than a child in a manger. They symbolize the light that comes into the world through the life of Jesus. They symbolize the light that, like the priest's lantern, shows more than "stuff."
This is the light of love, grace, compassion and justice. It doesn't tell us where or how to step, but offers us illumination as we journey.