8Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25
The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year. Or, put another way, it's the longest night. This time of year it’s dark when everyone leaves my house in the morning and it’s dark soon after we get home. Oftentimes, I have to hurry up and change my clothes in order to get the dog walked before it’s too dark to see.
Some people are comfortable in the dark. My husband Matt likes to walk the dog in the quiet of the night. To him it’s peaceful. But, because I have terrible night vision, it can be frightening. Raccoons, ground hog holes, or a tree root that sticks up are threats in the night. And so when the sun goes down, my day pretty much ends. I try to avoid the literal darkness. But there is another darkness--the metaphorical darkness that descends upon us when tragedy strikes. Even though many of us try to avoid it, darkness creeps into our lives.
Darkness wrecks havoc with our existence. Even though it's something we don't like to acknowledge darkness plays a big role in our lives and in the Bible.
- In the beginning, the very first words of the creation story tell us the earth was a void and covered in darkness.
- The psalmist walks through the darkest valley but fears no evil.
- The prophet Isaiah says: 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.
- Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
|Orion Nebula taken by Sarah Thornton|
At Christmas we focus on the shiny, happy season of light. But sometimes our religious practice gets so skewed that we pretend that everything is light. At least on the outside. We fail to acknowledge that our lives are light and dark. Our world is light and dark. It’s a rhythm that feels eternal—night and day, birth and death, happiness and sadness, creation and destruction, joy and pain.
The birth of Jesus takes place during a dark time for the people of Israel. For them it had a long time of war and occupation. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans came and conquered them time and time again. They were likely defeated and depressed. As we celebrate Christmas as a church and a culture, we often forget that Jesus came during what we metaphorically call a long, dark night of his nation’s soul.
But the hymn writers didn’t forget. The writer of O Come, O come Emmanuel know that Israel was captive to the dark and gloomy clouds of night, feeling lonely and exiled. The author of In the Bleak Midwinter knows that the world can feel like an unforgiving place, cold and hard as iron.
When we look closely at our traditions, we can see that the people who welcomed Christ into the world—the people who formed our faith through words, song and liturgy rejoiced in Christ because they understood the darkness. They welcomed Christ not as another ornament in a glittery life; they celebrated Christ because they wanted hope for their future. They loved Jesus, because he not only saw their pain and brokenness. But because he lived it like we do.
Jesus came into a dark world in a messy way. There was family drama as Mary and Joseph and their families figured out how to make the whole pregnant by the Holy Spirit thing work. Try to putting yourself in Joseph's place. The woman who is to be your wife is pregnant, and not by you. What if your spouse or the person you expected to marry were pregnant? How would you feel? Would you think that all was right with the world?
For Joseph it had to be a time of disappointment and anger. But, after the symbolic darkness of his defeated expectations comes the literal darkness—and a dream. It's a dream that changes Joseph’s destiny and our own as Joseph follows the charge of the angels and raises Jesus as his own son.
But accepting God’s call didn’t mean life got easy for him or Mary. When it came time to deliver the baby Mary and Joseph were itinerant. Dirty. Weary. And Jesus was born amongst the animals—E. Coli and darkness all around. Everyone who’s had a baby can tell you that it’s not an easy, clean process in the best of circumstances. Some of us howl like animals giving birth. Some of us cry. Jesus came into the world through Mary’s pain. Not that you’d know it from our art.
Our nativity scenes today don’t even have dust on them let along dung or sweat. That babies have survived deliveries like this over the centuries is a miracle in itself. But the message of Christ is that out of the dark, out of the family drama, out of the dirt and the muck and the germs, sweat, tears and pain, out of all this, the promise that hope can be born.
Hope doesn’t come into a sanitized world in a greeting card, an As Seen On TV gift, or twinkling light (although it can). Hope can enter our world anywhere and anytime. Like this baby born in the dirt and laid in a feeding trough, hope can survive the most difficult circumstances.
It’s important for us to remember this aspect of the Christmas message because sometimes our lives are filled with darkness, drama, tears, sweat and pain. It can be so hard to feel the “spirit of the holidays” when we are suffering inside. It can be hard to feel joyous when all we can think about are the years of traditions spent with a spouse whom we have lost to death or divorce. It can be difficult to imagine the gifts we cannot buy because this year we just don’t have the money. It can be heartbreaking to celebrate when a diagnosis of cancer is new.
We can be conflicted about Christmas because we want to be cheery for those present in our lives, but we can’t help but know that something or someone is missing. We imagine their place at the table, we think about what gifts they might have enjoyed. We remember that what he or she baked or made every year. Christmas can intensify the ache of loneliness or the emptiness of depression or the anger at the unfairness of circumstances.
The good news is, you can come to Christmas just as you are. You can come to Christ if you are full of love and joy and you can come to Christ with a hurting heart and tears that just won’t stop. You can come to Christmas as a bewildered man following his dreams like Joseph or a pregnant woman howling in pain in the dark of the night. You can come to the manger with awe or tears.
We can come to the manger, to Christmas, to Christ as we are, because it is Christ who brings the gifts. It’s Christ who brings the light. It’s Christ who is Emmanuel, God with us.
There is no greater love than a God who walks with us. There is no greater gift than a friend who stays with us when the night is the darkest. This is our purpose. We are here to remind each other that even though life is difficult, God is with us. When we are convinced that we are alone in our pain, we are here to remind each other that God is with us. When we forget the gifts that God has given us, we are here to remind each other that God is with us.
We live in a world that includes darkness, but we are the people who point to the light. And when we cannot point ourselves, we have other people who can point it out for us. This is what it means to love each other. This is what it means to live in community. This is what it means to be a church.
Into the darkness and the void of creation God spoke of light. God has walked alongside us into the darkest valleys. God came to us on a dark night through the cries of a young woman. God came to us through the scandal of an unplanned pregnancy. Emmanuel means God is with us--though it all.
You are not alone if you struggle with darkness. The great Mother Teresa revealed her struggles to her spiritual advisor. This embodiment of Christian love and compassion sometimes felt empty on the inside. She and other great mystics and saints sometimes had trouble praying. They sometimes felt abandoned. Just like you. Just like me.
When we can’t feel God, we sometimes need someone to help us see God’s light. Mother Teresa knew this. In the book of her writings titled, Come, Be My Light, she reminds us—and I remind you with her words:
“Jesus wants me to tell you again...how much is the love He has for each one of you--beyond all what you can imagine...Not only He loves you, even more--He longs for you… He loves you always, even when you don't feel worthy...”
So come to the manger. Make the journey as you are, remembering the rhythms of life. Night and day, birth and death, happiness and sadness, creation and destruction, joy and pain. Come, trusting that out of darkness, God created. Come, knowing that out of family drama, a savior was born. Come, remembering that out of defeat, hope arose. As we come to the manger, let us remember that God is indeed with us each step of the way.