How wonderful it is to be here this evening with all of you. This is the first time in two years that we have been able to pull out all the stops and celebrate a major feast day of the Church as it should be celebrated –with beautiful music, with singing, with lovely flowers and decorations, a lovingly set altar, and most importantly, in a church full of people coming together (in person) for joyful worship.
Most years on Christmas Eve we, or perhaps I should say I, don’t pay too much attention to our scripture readings from the Old Testament or the epistles. We’re here for the main event, Luke’s gospel story of the birth of Christ.
And what a story it is — of God coming to earth as a vulnerable, helpless infant. It is perhaps the most beloved story of all time, one that is at the heart of our faith. It’s the reason we are here tonight — to hear once more that there is no room in the inn for Joseph and the pregnant Mary, to hear of their child’s birth in a manger, to hear the heavenly hosts terrifying the poor shepherds as they watch their flock by night.
But this year it is the first line of scripture we heard tonight, from the prophet Isaiah, that leapt out at me.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” the prophet proclaims, “those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.”
All of us here tonight are living in a land of deep darkness. Almost two years into the coronavirus, after more than 810,000 deaths in this country alone, medical experts warn that the pandemic’s darkest days may still be ahead of us.
Across our country and around the globe, the earth is warning us through fires, droughts, deadly storms, and extreme temperatures that there are even more dire days ahead if we do not change our ways.
And all of the usual problems of our nation continue as well — poverty, addiction, gun violence, and a host of others.
In such difficult days we may feel like it is hard to get into the Christmas spirit.
But we are here tonight to remember that Jesus 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.
He comes into a world not that much different from the world in which we live today.
Christmas is not a time when we transcend or ignore the stress and pain of life. It is the time when we discover God in the middle of it all.
Whatever stresses and concerns we brought into this beautiful church tonight are not going to disappear because it is Christmas. The pandemic will still rage on, the earth will still be in peril.
Many of you are grieving an empty chair at your Christmas celebrations.
Maybe you are worried about your job, about your children, about your own health.
Maybe you are here tonight full of doubts, wondering what this ancient story has to do with your life?
Everything we carry in our hearts and minds comes with us this Christmas, just as all of Mary and Joseph’s hopes and fears came with them on that hard road to Bethlehem.
We come here seeking light in the darkness, we come to seek and celebrate that once again God is being born into our midst, bringing light and companionship in the dark.
Earlier this week I read a story in The Washington Post that illustrates that so well. It’s a pandemic Christmas story, set in Maryland in Christmas 2020, when the pandemic was raging and there were no vaccines to guard against it.
Kim Morton was home one evening watching television with her daughter when she received a text from her across the street neighbor telling her to look outside.
That neighbor, Matt Riggs, had hung a string of white Christmas lights from his house to hers. The lights, he told her, were a symbol that they were always connected despite the isolation of the pandemic.
Riggs knew that his neighbor was dealing with depression and anxiety, plus grief over the death of someone she loved, and the stress of work.
“I was reaching out to her to literally brighten her world,” he said.
That one strand of lights in the darkness inspired others to shine their lights, too.
“Little by little the whole neighborhood started doing it,” Morton said. “The lights were a sign of connection and love.”
She and Riggs watched as their neighbors, with drills and ladders, climbed on rooftops and trees to hang lights horizontally, weaving a web of light connecting all the houses of the neighborhood.
They were masked and at a distance, but for the first time in a long time, a feeling of togetherness — and light — had returned.
One neighbor made a sign out of lights saying “Love lives here” and hung it across the street.
The light and love shown in that neighborhood is a reflection of that first Christmas night so long ago.
The heavenly hosts and their blazing light announce that heaven and earth are connected, that God is always with us through good times and bad.
The star shining above the manger announces to the world that “love lives here.”
Tonight we celebrate the birth of the child who comes to us as love and light, walking with us through the deep darkness, encouraging us to shine our own light for others, as those neighbors did for one another in Maryland in the midst of a pandemic.
“It made me look up, literally and figuratively, above all the things that were dragging me down,” Morton said. “It was light, pushing back the darkness.”
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who live in a land of deep darkness — on them, and us, light has shined.