"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."
I've always enjoyed winter, but for the first time this year, I've been looking out my window at 4 in the afternoon, thinking, “It's so dark! Where is the light?” No matter what “Latest Findings” may turn up in the news or on TV around this time speculating when Jesus was “really” born, there are good reasons we celebrate it at the darkest time of year. We are all a people who walk in darkness.
It seems like every few months now, the country is about to go bankrupt. Politicians blame one another as they attempt to keep or gain power, but don't seem too concerned with us common folk. Checkpoints at airports keep us in fear, and remind us of the darkness around us. Individually, we have our private darknesses of depression or anxiety, of having lost someone we love, of having lost a job, or opportunity. We can understand the pain of the ancient Israelites as they sat in captivity, as expressed in Psalm 137:
By the waters of Babylon we sát down and wépt, * when we remembered thée, O Sýon.
2. As for our harps, we hánged them úp * upon the trées that áre therein.
3. For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody ín our héaviness: * Sing us one of the sóngs of Sýon.
4. How shall we síng the Lórd’s song * ín a stránge land?
In our pain, we cry to God, as they did, imploring his help. It's not when things are going well, when all is bright, that we do this. The story of the Israelites is the story of each of us. We understand how easy it is to forget God, as they did, when everything’s going well, but as we experience the darkness and the cold around us, that's not where we are. Expectations are unreasonably high; family disagreements are magnified, and we want the yoke of our burden broken. And to those ancient people, and to us today, Esaias prophesied: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.”
And so they waited, and so we wait.
“In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus.” God hears the cries of his people, and he comes. But he comes not in power and majesty, through rent heavens – but in secrecy, darkness, anonymity. He comes to save his people – but not everyone notices. Jesus would later say, “Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.” So we see in tonight’s gospel, “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
In our own darkness, God, who is Love, comes to us as Love-made-flesh. We find him in our darkness hidden, attended by lowly animals. This little babe shows us the beginning of his kingdom, an upside-down kingdom, unlooked for by the people of power. Those people can't understand his kingdom, or see it, because it is a kingdom of Love. It isn't a kingdom that exists somewhere else, in the future, or in heaven: it's right in our midst, and all it takes is Love to see it.
When we suffer in the darkness of a loss of a parent, or sibling, or friend, we suffer because we love that person. And in that Love, Christ is present with us. He doesn't overthrow the darkness by force, he robs it of its power by Love. If we “watch”, and see him there, we're not alone, and as the Psalmist says in Psalm 139, “the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as cléar as the dáy; * the darkness and light to thée are bóth alike.” The simple knowledge that we're not alone can make the darkness no longer a burden: it is through love that the “boots of the tramping warriors” are burned as fuel for the fire. He comes to us in the smile of a stranger, in the kind words of a friend, in the chance jumping out at us of a word or phrase from a book or paper we happen to see.
When we then go to someone else who is in darkness – not with solutions to their problems, not with judgments or answers, but with a simple presence in Love – Christ is once more incarnating. “They shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” It is in simply being with one another in Love that Christ is eternally born in our darknesses. This is the wonderful manner in which the devil is confounded! As Jesus would later describe the Kingdom of heaven, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” Once the leaven of Love is worked into the meal our Life, no matter what hurt comes to us, Love will resurface. And so Tonight we celebrate the Birth of Love. Not 2000 years ago, but Now, Eternally, With us.