“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.”
Usually on Christmas Eve preachers don’t pay a lot of attention to the first two readings of the evening. Isaiah and Titus are just fillers — just the opening act — until we get to the main event, the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke.
But not much is usual this Christmas Eve, is it?
We’re not gathered together in a beautiful, candle-lit church, filled to overflowing. We’re not singing together hymns that many of us know by heart. We won’t be holding candles at the end of the service as we sing Silent Night in a darkened church.
Instead, Joe, Joseph Henry, and I are in our dining room, livestreaming the service to you at your homes. The music has all been pre-recorded in a church decorated for Christmas even though there are no services there.
In other words, it’s a Covid Christmas. I am grateful for the technology that has kept us connected these last nine months, but especially at times like this evening I long for us to be physically together.
But as we’ve said since the season of Coronatide began for us in March, the faithful response to the this virus is to stay away from in-person gatherings, at church and elsewhere.
Tonight the Prophet Isaiah’s words ring true. We are living in a land of deep darkness.
From February, when the first two deaths from the coronavirus occurred in California, we have seen 325,000 die in this country from Covid. More than 18 million have contracted the disease.
Even those who have not gotten the virus have been affected by it. Millions have lost their livelihoods. Lines at food pantries stretch for blocks. Millions of our fellow Americans are hungry and worried about how they will provide for themselves and their families in the cold winter months.
The approval of new vaccines is a light, a sign that the pandemic will end. But doctors warn that the months ahead are going to be grim.
No wonder many are saying they just don’t feel very Christmasy this year.
In fact, on the news this morning one reporter announced from London that Christmas has been cancelled in England this year.
I have news for him and for all who may not feel like celebrating this year.
Christmas cannot be cancelled. In fact, we need it more this year than anytime in my lifetime.
Though the circumstances of the pandemic are unique, Christmas come to a world where people are walking in darkness, including that first Christmas more than 2,000 years ago.
Mary and Joseph weren’t on a pleasure trip to Bethlehem. They were ordered there by the emperor Caesar in faraway Rome for the census. The journey was 100 miles on foot and donkey over treacherous and rough terrain.
They were peasants living in an oppressive society ruled from afar by Caesar, but locally by the Rome-appointed Herod, whose brutality was legendary. Up to 60 percent of their earnings went to pay taxes, not to provide services for people in need, but to fill the coffers of the rich. Roman soldiers patroled the streets of Jerusalem.
“Jesus was essentially born into a third-world context under a military dictatorship,” religion professor Douglas Oakman said. “It was a society where everyone was oppressed.”
In other words, Christ is not born into a world filled with light and warmth and joy. He comes into the darkness, the cold, into a land occupied by a foreign empire. He comes in poverty and vulnerability. He comes to a world filled with violence and evil.
This night I’d like to offer you three reflections in response to the darkness in which Jesus was born, that also speak to the darkness we experience this Christmas season.
First, a Prayer of Confession by Keith Watkins, a prayer that seems especially appropriate in this Christmas that comes in the midst of ongoing tragedy:
God, we confess that ours is still a world in which Herod seems to rule: the powerful are revered, the visions of the wise are ignored, the poor are afflicted, and the innocent are killed. You show us that salvation comes in the vulnerability of a child, yet we hunger for the “security” of weapons and walls. You teach us that freedom comes in loving service, yet we trample on others in our efforts to be “free.” Forgive us, God, when we look to the palace instead of the stable, when we heed politicians more than prophets. Renew us with the spirit of Bethlehem, that we may be better prepared for your coming.
Next, poet Dom Helder Camara reminds us that Christ came “In the Middle of the Night.”
In the middle of the night, When stark night was darkest, then You chose to come. God’s resplendent first-born sent to make us one. The voices of doom protest: “All these words about justice, love and peace – all these naïve words will buckle beneath the weight of a reality which is brutal and bitter, ever more bitter.” It is true, Lord, it is midnight upon the earth, moonless night and starved of stars. But can we forget that You, the Son of God, chose to be born precisely at midnight?
And finally, Madeleine L’Engle, reminds us of what our response should be to Christ’s coming into our imperfect world and lives in “First Coming:”
God did not wait until the world was ready,till...nations were at peace. God came when the Heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release. God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great. God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait till hearts were pure. In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt. To a tarnished world like ours, of anguished shame God came, and God’s Light did not go out. We can not wait til the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, for to share our grief, to touch our pain, God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
Yes, we walk in deep darkness, but tonight we celebrate once more that light which is born anew. God comes with love. Rejoice! Rejoice!