1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph 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. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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. 8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When 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.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
As a child – one of my very favorite things that we did in church was lighting candles on Christmas Eve. That feeling when the church goes dark, when you wonder if the candles will really work this year and will there be light in the darkness. I love it – and I think a lot of folks come to Christmas Eve worship just for that, maybe I did too.
Everything else we do is a normal Sunday thing. We sing hymns of joy and praise, we hear scripture and pray together, and we receive the sacrament of our Lord’s body and blood. We learn again about this Jesus who was born in humble circumstances who was actually the savior of the world and that he was born for us. We are uplifted and fed and nourished, and we share peace with each other. We also always have candles – every Sunday we light some candles. But the darkness. We save that for Christmas.
It’s almost like we need a visual cue that everyone participates in – to remind us that though the world may be dark, shadowed, and harsh – we are not alone. We stand together in the absence of light, and learn that not only are we not alone, God is present in the darkness. God has always been present in the darkness. Even when the people walk in darkness, when they walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is present. God is the one who created darkness, God knows every dark corner and shadow place because God put then there. In fact, for God the night and the day are both alike. The Rev. Elle Dowd reminds us in her “Homily in Praise of Darkness” that the Triune God “…refuses to be constricted by the false binaries we have constructed. God is both intimately known to us and infinitely unknowable. God is present in both light and darkness and everything in between.”
God came to his people in darkness – when God took Abraham outside to show him the stars. When God wrestled with Jacob that night and he got his blessing. When God responded to Job’s accusations out of a whirlwind. when he led the Israelites with cloud and fire through the darkness on the night of Passover. When death and the shadow of death was all around. Jesus was born in darkness. From the darkness of the womb, to the darkness of a starry night, Jesus was raised in darkness, a sealed tomb very early in the morning. The angels showed up to shepherds in the darkness.
This world feels very dark sometimes. Not dark in the sense of evil, I mean, though it does feel like that sometimes – but dark in the sense of not being able to see clearly. Confused about a way forward, if there is a way forward at all. The sort of dark where the shadows take on a life of their own if you look too hard at them. We have been walking a dark path – clouded and obscured – and many wonder if there is an end in sight.
“And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow, look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing. O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!”
Our savior did not come into this world with a thousand gleaming chariots, or with fireworks – with a neon sign proclaiming his worth. Our savior did not come and banish the night – or banish the darkness – but stepped into that night with us, vulnerable and poor. Our savior came into the night with one star – a small light in a dark world. And then that light spread. That light spread to shepherds in the fields, just trying to keep track of their sheep in the dark. The light spread to those who would come to know and follow this savior, hearing he was the light of the world. The light spread to the earliest church at Pentecost when they saw the flames all around – and the light has continued to spread, flicker by flame.
It was not the grand entrance many were imagining. It was not the holy city descending, and the temple rebuilt. Many who awaited the messiah were waiting for this grand entrance. For God to take the wheel, turn the lights on for good, and vanquish the realm of shadows. This is still to come, that is the promise. But on this night the light was given to us. Born for us. Shared with us – for us to share. The practice of our faith is relational, one to another, telling the story, sharing the light. That’s why we call faith a practice – in anticipation of the event, we practice looking for the light, and sharing it.
Tonight, we practice the reality of darkness, in a safe place. When even churches go dark, there is still sanctuary. We share our light with those around us, knowing that when we share that flame, it does not diminish our own resource. We share our light with those around us, looking to our left and our right for someone who does not yet have light and eagerly seeking to be the one to share with them. We keep our light burning so that those who are in darkness can see it. And then perhaps like our God, like Jesus, we too can go into that darkness to sit in solidarity – to offer a hand, a shoulder, an ear, a meal, tangible things in the darkness.
The church is the place that must reject that same false binary of light good dark bad. In the immortal words of Tom Bodett, “We’ll leave the light on for you.” But also show up in your darkest hours with casserole and cake and the presence of friends to sit with you in your grief.
Our savior offers us tangible things in the darkness, in our weakness and confusion, we hold the light of the world in the palm of our hand in the mystery of holy communion. Our savior offers us both light and comfort in the darkness.
Once again – the incomparable Rev. Elle Dowd gives us words for our prayer:
“Holy Mystery, in the deep of the expanse of this blue-black sky the night is alive. The cosmos is dancing, the whole world is humming, all creation is vibrating in anticipation of your birth. Stir in us also this same yearning to see you born again in a new way here in your gift of darkness. Awaken us to the hidden, unexpected places where you often dwell. Amen.”