What does it feel like to say that familiar greeting this year? Are you filled with Christmas spirit? Are you ready to enjoy the annual celebration with joy overflowing, get-togethers with friends and families? Are you full of Christmas cheer? Or does it all, in spite of every effort, seem like Christmas this year is a little darker, our hope and joy dimmed by a nation and a world that seems to be spiraling out of control in violence, environmental degradation, and fear.
Or maybe it’s simply the fact that we haven’t seen the sun around here in a couple of weeks and the gray gloom of a dark December without snow to cover the brown ground has cast its pall over our spirits. How can we sing “Joy to the World” in a time like this?
Still, what does it mean to celebrate Christmas this dark December in our current cultural climate and historical context when our hopes for a brighter future seem to be unrealistic pipedreams? When even the achievements we want to celebrate—the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, for example—are shown to be rather hollow given the ongoing racism and racial disparities in our community and nation. How can we sing “Joy to the World” in such a time as this?
There are dark places in our lives and in our world. Many of us are dispirited, broken-hearted over all of these problems of the world. Some of us are dispirited, broken-hearted because of issues in our own lives or the lives of our loved ones. In spite of the stock market, in spite of low gas prices, some of us struggle economically. We may be experiencing broken relationships, dashed hopes. We may be suffering illness or struggling with the illnesses of loved ones. Some of us are grieving the deaths of spouses, children, and are going through the motions of celebrating Christmas while the holes in our lives, and at our dinner tables, are gaping wide as reminders of those we’ve lost in the last year. Some of us are wrestling with doubts, wondering whether we believe in God. Some of us are going through the motions, singing carols that seem not to reflect where we are at spiritually. How can we sing “Joy to the world!” when our lives, our hearts and minds, lack joy?
But perhaps none of this is true for you. Perhaps you are here tonight because you want to celebrate, you are bursting with joy and anticipation to sing the familiar carols, hear the old story, and can hardly wait to open presents and to sit down tomorrow at a table groaning with all sorts of goodies. If that’s the case, I’m sorry to be such a downer, but even as your hearts are full and you are ebullient with joy, let me remind you of what’s taking place across the courtyard at Grace, as homeless men settle down tonight as they settle down every night, to a bed, but look forward tomorrow to another day on the streets, just like every other day in their lives. There are dark places in our lives and in our world, even when we refuse to recognize them or name them.
For all the brightness and joy within these walls tonight as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the reality is that Jesus was born in a very dark place in the world of that day. The light came into the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.
The familiar words from Luke’s gospel tells the story of Jesus’ birth with elements, images, and phrases that have become fixed in our memories and in our lives—swaddling clothes (in spite of the “bands of cloth” in our translation), no room at the inn, shepherds and angels, Mary pondered all these things in her heart.
We have domesticated the scene into the ubiquitous crèche, a simple stable, with Mary and Joseph surrounding the manger as an ox and ass look on. The shepherds are coming from the distance.
Also at the scene are usually the magi, or wise men, even though as Grace Irving reminded us in our pageant this past Sunday morning, the magi are in Matthew’s version of the story, not Luke’s. They arrive not on the day of Jesus’ birth but some time later. In recent years, other figures too have begun to appear in these nativity scenes, Santa Claus is often present. This year photos of nativity scenes with action figures like batman were widely distributed by my facebook friends.
Some of that is just kitsch or folks having fun with traditional imagery but there’s something deeper going on, too. Familiar stories can become too familiar. Even in a culture like ours where an increasing percentage of our population have no connection whatsoever with the Christmas story, most people think they know what it’s all about. We struggle, all of us, to make sense of this story; we struggle to experience its power.
Luke couldn’t have imagined that the words he wrote would be read two thousand years later. He was writing at a specific time, in a specific context, and to a specific audience. He uses the story, its imagery, and even its framing, to make important theological points. Our familiarity with the basics tempts us to overlook those other details, and the larger theological arguments in play.
For example, by providing a historical context and by introducing the Roman Empire, Luke is drawing a contrast between Roman imperial power, and the Roman imperial story (we might call it propaganda) and the story he is telling. Luke makes the point that Rome can dictate events, move people, from thousands of miles away, that it is interested in the intimate lives of its subjects. And yet, the story Luke tells lies outside the scope of Roman imperial power and interest.
Rome took no notice; the world took no notice; the village took no notice. Mary and Joseph had come from a distance in obedience to an imperial edict. Their relationship wasn’t quite regular, they were engaged but not married, and the girl was pregnant. In a crowded town, they had to scrounge to find a place to spend the night and find a makeshift place where she could give birth. No one noticed; no one cared.
In that way, Mary and Joseph are like so many people in our world, people who are suffering, homeless, refugees from violence and war, or even those suffering from or fearing Ebola. Their struggles, their lives go on far from the limelight, often crushed by events outside their power. We notice them only when the scale of the tragedy becomes so immense we can’t ignore it, or when the death of a young African-American on the streets of Ferguson becomes the subject of media, and political, frenzy. But the individual stories, of a man and woman searching for a place to spend the night, or shelter so she can give birth, those stories aren’t important, to us or to our world.
From Rome’s perspective, places like Bethlehem existed for only two reasons. One was so that it could project its military power further toward the contested borders with its enemies on the east. The second reason was to give up its human and economic resources for exploitation by the empire. The lives of its residents, the stories of its people, simply didn’t matter. Bethlehem was an obscure little village, a dark corner of the empire, that was of no account whatsoever.
Bethlehem was an obscure village, a dark corner of the world, yet it was to that dark place that God chose to come. It was there that the light shone in the darkness. It was there that the Word became flesh. It was in that dark place, in that obscure village, to that young girl, that God was born in human form.
There are dark places in this world where we can’t imagine God is present. Places of violence and oppression; places of unfathomable suffering. There are dark places in our lives where we can’t imagine God might come. Places of grief, despair, hopelessness, pain and suffering, dark places that we hide from ourselves and from others. Too often, our question in the midst of great suffering is, “Where is God?”
Sometimes we turn the other way. In the last years, I have abandoned listening to or watching any news programs. It’s all too depressing; so I keep up on what’s happening on the internet, where I can regulate what I see and watch, read a headline to know that something has happened but usually I don’t follow up, learn more, because it’s all just too depressing.
We all do that, if not with the news, then with other things. We close ourselves off to the reality of the world; we avoid the dark places because we just don’t want to have to deal with them. But they never seem to stay behind the doors or within the boundaries we’ve set for them. They have a way of escaping and casting shadows on the rest of our lives and on the world. So tonight, as we worship in this place, a few yards away homeless men are settling down for the night and looking ahead to a Christmas Day spent on the streets.
The light shone in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it. It sometimes seems that what we do here, our carols, our preaching, our rituals of hope and love are meaningless and powerless in the face of the evil of the world; we cannot stem the darkness. But God came to us, God came into the darkness, and into that dark night came light, and hope, and joy. God comes into all of the dark places of our lives. God comes into the dark places of the world, bringing light, and hope, and joy.
Let us rejoice, because we know that the God we worship enters the dark places of this world. Let us rejoice, because we know that the God who became flesh knows our dark places and brings light to them. Let us sing and sing with gusto, “Joy to the World!”