Year B Christmas Eve I, 25 December 2020
Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Grief and Light”
Collect: O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
I tend to look at the joy and wonder of Christmas, and that is a privileged position. We look to the light, if we do, because we have the light. For those who have wandered in darkness, the light can be blinding and they often have to turn their faces away.
If all you have ever thought is that your glass is less than half full, it is very hard for one to look at the glass and see it as more than half full without having doubts or fear that it will soon be taken away or that it is a cruel joke.
Our expectations are conditioned. If we have been taught by the hardship of life to see the worst, we find what we look for.
It is of no surprise that Christmas came when it was darkest. The Solstice and the blinding light are closely linked together.
This year, a year in which we have seen so much darkness and worry, the light is all the more needed, all the more wanted, all the more here.
In a movie that haunts me, the main character is deluded, and cannot escape from a hell he has made for himself. Throughout the movie the other characters say to him, “Open your eyes.” After years of lack of use, it is so hard. When he finally does, and opens his eyes, the truth, the reality, is beyond belief. But that is where he is reborn.
I do not need to make a litany of all that has transpired over the course of this year, and it is not over yet. A running joke going around is that God sent an angel to upload all the history of the 2020s, the whole decade, and the angel misheard God and poured a decade of history into this single year. It feels that way.
This week I went out to see the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter Monday at the Solstice. After all the buildup I expected more, but it was still amazing. People’s pictures were much better than my reality. But as we waited to see it on that night it reminded me, it has to be dark for light to be revealed. The sun had to set, the twilight had to lessen, the darkness had to take hold for me to appreciate the wonder of what I was seeing.
When Charles Dickens wrote his ubiquitous, now, story A Christmas Carol he had to go very dark for the light for it to be as bright as it was at the end. We need ghosts to haunt us for the angels of our better nature to emerge.
Maybe this year, our collective trauma and our collective grief will allow us to embrace the light when it comes fully.
As the prophet Isaiah reminded us,
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy...
The timid are afraid to have hope. The kicked dog. The abused child. The battered spouse. The exploited worker. They all have reason to be wary, experience is an expensive and hard-to-forget teacher. But hear me when I say:
Yes. It is dark, has been, and will be for a while yet.
Yes. There is light and the darkness cannot put it out.
Yes. You can hope. You do not need to worry forever. A dawning will come and it will be glorious.
Friends, that is why we have each other. We have the gift of the Church. We gather today through technology, sadly, but we gather. We so wanted to be together, but the rains came. An apt metaphor for 2020. But STILL, we proclaim the Good News of Great Joy that can be for ALL the PEOPLE. We have to proclaim it any and everywhere.
Think of a dark room with the windows closed tight. Outside the room the dawn is breaking and a beam breaks in under the door. It does not stay at the threshold, but breaks in by streaks that stretch across the floor, spreading and seemingly growing as it does. That single beam fractures our darkness, and in our acclimated blindness it seems to fill the room with light.
This Christmas, let the light of Christ break through. Break through into your room, let it stretch and reach even into the darkest recesses of the chambers of your heart that so need the light.
I think one of the greatest needs that we have in our society is better ways to deal with our collective grief from the trauma we have all felt. Some have yelled. Some have called it fake. Some have belittled and dismissed. Some have just suffered through it and soldiered on. But we all have been hurt this year. We have hurt each other by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have been traumatized by the pandemic. By our political crisis. By our despair.
Our pain has gotten so bad, and we kept scouring for hope on our smart phones, or for information at least, that there was a word invented for our collective act of despair: DOOMSCROLLING. We keep looking at the news obsessively, unrelentingly, and even that is taking a toll.
And in light of all of that, I name it. We are grieving. I acknowledge it. It will take a long time for us to get over this last year. And I give this hope. I believe in you. I believe in the God who made you, loves you, and redeemed you. And I believe that the only way we can get better and move on is to recognize that we have to rely and support one another.
The Christ child came that we might have life and have it to the full. Jesus was born so that we could sleep well tonight knowing that this too shall pass, and that we will thrive in days to come as long as we have each other.
And that is Good News. Good News worth sharing. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot, will not overcome it. On this I cannot stay silent.
204 years ago, tonight, a simple organist Franz Gruber had taken a poem by the Catholic priest of the St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria, and wrote the tune of one of our most beloved Christmas carols. The organ had been damaged. Some say a mouse chewed the leather of the bellows, while others say flooding damaged them. Either way, the organ would not play for the midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
And on this night, this night of all nights, they could not be silent. In just a few hours, Gruber took the words of the poem Father Joseph Mohr had written, and with his guitar sang a song that breaks into the night. It also is a light that shines in our darkness, and let’s us share the joy. We, like Father Joseph and Max Gruber, cannot be silent on this night. On this night we cannot stay silent.
[Singing] Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin, mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.