Winter solstice is upon us. In the northern hemisphere, tomorrow marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. This entire Advent season we’ve been talking about “watching for the light,” during which time the light has actually been slowly receding from view as the days have grown increasingly shorter. What’s more, our “watching for the light” season culminates in a week that holds the least amount of light in the entire year. What are we doing celebrating Christmas during the darkest days on the calendar?
Maybe July would be better suited for Christmas. July—light is everywhere that month. Our theme would be not “watching for the light”, but “wallowing in the light.” Does that work?
Christmas is where it is on the calendar for a very important reason. Beyond the pagan influence of the deep December date, more importantly the biblical story itself is an account of light dispelling darkness. Luke sets up that dialectic beautifully, telling us that when Jesus was born, angels literally—this is the Greek rendering—angels shone like a lamp as they shared the news with shepherds “in the night”—Nuktos in the Greek, from which comes our word nocturnal. Shining like a lamp in the night.
Earlier in Luke, Zechariah sings of that same dynamic: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn shall break upon us, giving light to those who sit in the darkness.” Just further in Luke, at the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple, Simeon sings about Jesus as a light that was to enlighten the entire rest of the world. The birth of Jesus is the lamp of God’s love raised up in the dark of night for all to see and warm their hands by.
Today’s reading from Isaiah gives us more of the same in a more figurative way: the sense of light dispelling darkness. “The Spirit of Yahweh is upon me…because God has sent me to bring comfort, healing, freedom for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the prisoner, those who mourn.”
There’s a curious feature in the Hebrew text of Isaiah 61: one phrase—the brokenhearted—actually appears twice in succession. Think broken record, which unfortunately in a different sense we’ve been hearing a lot about lately in Covid numbers: “God has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, the brokenhearted.”
It’s as though the prophet knows there are plenty of broken hearts to go around right now. Or maybe the text is meant to be read this way: “God has sent me, brokenhearted, to bind up the brokenhearted.” Wounded healers we are sometimes called to be, our own wounds healed in the tending of others’ wounds. Brokenhearted, brokenhearted.
Let me count the ways, as if you didn’t know them, our hearts have been broken this year.
During the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people have died in this country alone, and so many more globally; millions have been infected from the virus. There are collateral effects in individuals, families, schools, churches, and other institutions, businesses and communities too vast to apprehend or identify fully. Millions have been displaced from work. Food banks have been overrun. The number of adults experiencing symptoms of depression has tripled. Alcohol consumption has risen, as has domestic violence.
We are prisoners in our own homes, captive to our computers; Zoom-grateful, but also Zoom-fatigued, aching for human contact of the three-dimensional sort. Weave into this experience a newly honed awareness of deeply entrenched social, ethnic, and racial disparities in our history and in our present. Brokenhearted, brokenhearted.
When I began to see Christmas lights back at the beginning of November I realized how eager we all were for light: seeking to introduce those Christmas lights where at least some electrical brightness into a darkened world.
Light into the night is the story we tell at Christmas. The light of God’s love meeting the night of human need. This is the essential nature of the gospel. And then Isaiah carries that vision further: Light comes to God’s people in order to go through God’s people. Into the darkest places of hurt and need, doubt and struggle, we are sent to raise the lamp of love and healing.
And Laurel Heights, in so many ways across this winter of a year you have done just that. Lately, it’s been Christmas bags. Those Christmas bags went out this past week—so many of you had a hand in that effort. Securing materials, assembling the bags, adding a special something, praying over each family and individual who would receive them and then share them, and then others making those deliveries.
One person, after finding their gift bag on the porch, wrote this, “I want to thank the elf from Laurel Heights United Methodist Church who just came by and left my Mom and me candles for the virtual Christmas Eve service.”
The elf from Laurel Heights. Isn’t that wonderful? Was that you? Who was that elf? Have you ever thought of yourself as an elf? They come, of course, in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and places along the faith journey. And God is always recruiting more elves. There’s only one requirement: pointy shoes. No, that’s not it. There’s only one requirement: an openness to sharing the light of God’s love, even in difficult places; and in sharing it, knowing we will surely encounter it, too. It’s Ashley Landers’ reciprocity of light.
Every gift bag delivered by an elf from Laurel Heights—and if you did not receive one, call the church office, we’d be glad to find our way to you. Every one of those gift bags is a gift bag in the making, your front porch and mine is only a stop along the way. There are gifts inside to offer a friend, a neighbor, a coworker, a family member, even a stranger. Maybe it’s a candle, a card, a piece of chalk, an invitation to the manger on the longest night, or an online worship service on Christmas Eve, candle lit. Maybe it’s a prayer that’s exchanged, or a listening ear; maybe it’s a mutual understanding, the brokenhearted with the brokenhearted.
As the days have grown dimmer and dimmer on the calendar, light has grown brighter and brighter through your labors of love in this initiative and in so many other expressions of care and compassions that you as Laurel Heights have been to each other and in the world. You have embodied Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s prayer: Enveloped in Your Light, may I be a beacon to those in search of Light. There is one more breath prayer for us, another journal heading, another subject for sketching, another focus for discernment: Enveloped in Your Light, may I be a beacon to those in search of Light.
This is the darkest season of the year; but also maybe, in a mysterious and powerful way, the brightest. When simple gifts of love, gestures of kindness, a prayer, a donation overcome the darkness, very much like that first Christmas in Bethlehem.
After a season of the light ebbing day after dimming day, tomorrow our hemisphere will be as dark as it ever gets. And then, having arrived at winter solstice, the journey continues. The night will instantly begin to slowly recede, while light becomes more and more present every day that follows winter solstice, continuing to expand unimpeded, undeterred, through whatever ravages of winter follows, as dark and distressing a season as it may be. Every single day, rain or shine, hell or high water, will be slightly more tinged with the gift of light than the day before, all the way to spring, all the way to summer. It’s nature’s gospel!
This is the story, ours is the story, of how light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it. We could call it nature’s gospel. Or we could call it the nature of the gospel. We could simply call it Christmas.