God from God, Light from Light

Christmas Eve, Year C. (Christmas Day I)

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.

Isaiah 9:2-3

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

My first experience with real darkness came on a cold night my second year in college. It was a quiet night, cold, with a cloud cover. The darkness fell upon the land quietly, without fanfare. I had been out shopping when the darkness came. In the minutes after I had left the store and began my journey back to campus, faraway storms knocked out the power grid for the whole county. As I drove toward my dorm, my headlights were swallowed up into the void, and an uncomfortable revelation fell upon me. When I arrived and turned off my car, I met true darkness for the first time.

Now, I had been in nominally darker places before; tours of caves where they flick the lights off for a moment, camping in remote areas, all the usual places where one goes as a tourist into the void. Darkness in a small town in the mountains of Tennessee would seem trivial by comparison. But all my previous encounters with darkness were merely visits, a fun thrill like a scary movie; dark, but controlled, monitored, timed, and crafted for effect. I had been prepared for those darknesses, but such quick visits are nothing like when deep darkness is thrust upon you.

The streetlights were gone, as were all the lights in the dorms and buildings. It was finals time, and normally the soft glow of study lamps through windows would cut into the dark. But not that night. Not only had the darkness come, but it seemed that everyone had gone. There were no cars, no flashlights, no chatting, no laughter, or anything to indicate life. I looked up for the moon or stars to guide my path, but they too were lost in the darkness. The silence and the darkness enveloped everything, even upon me. Realizing how truly alone I was, I began to walk through a land of deep darkness.

How quickly we forget how dark the world used to be. In those days when the whole world was to be registered there was a darkness and silence on the land. In quiet and comfortable inns, in stables, or in fields with flocks by night, the people walked in darkness. In moments where the darkness of the old world tries to break into our lives it is startling, and deeply troubling. In these past days it has felt like walking through a land of deep darkness, our troubling times covering us like a cloud.

But this darkness is fleeting. For on this day in the city David a savior is born. The light of the world has come and banished the darkness away. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Yes, we live in troubling times, but the Lord is no stranger to troubled times. He was born into times such as these. The census that Luke cites (though with the wrong date)[1] as the reason for Mary & Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem sparked a revolt in Galilee that would transform into the Zealot movement. A movement that culminated into a horrible war and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem a generation later. For as much as Luke’s telling sounds like a comforting story, it is a tale about real people, real poverty, real struggle, and most importantly, God choosing not to wipe away this world of darkness but bringing the light into it.

The miracle of Christmas is the light revealing the true nature of the world and humanity. How often when we are tired, frustrated, and disappointed by our fellow man are we tempted to believe that there is no goodness left in this world. That our efforts are pointless, and even though the world’s problems are man-made, we feel powerless to solve them. But the truth is that the greatest danger we face is not politics, or economics, or even plagues, but no longer loving humanity.

This is the darkness that threatens us: the lie that we are fundamentally alone, and humanity is not worth saving. Christ is the light that banishes it away.

“those who lived in a land of deep darkness‒on them light has shined.”

As I wandered in the dark all those years ago, aimless and alone, light shined on me. A single light in what seemed like a faraway land called to me. As I came toward the light I saw a city shining on a hill, welcoming all people lost and afraid as I was. It was the sanctuary and true home of all college students: the dining hall. It was on that night that I learned that three buildings on campus had backup generators: the health clinic, the church, and the dining hall. As I went to the dining hall, I saw the true light that scattered the darkness, my friends, the staff, my classmates, my enemies, and even a few professors. We all gathered together that night and suddenly there was no darkness. We held all things in common, small sandwiches, for the students that had papers to write and projects to finish, we gave them the outlets and power strips. Some told stories, some sang songs, some brought board games, and some guarded a quiet place for work and rest. What had been the night when true darkness was thrust upon me, became the night where we all saw the true light scatter it away. What could have been a night of fear and trembling became one of my fondest memories.  In our common humanity, our simple community, the love for each other that we never knew we had, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Daily the darkness calls to us, daily we are told to hate our enemies, that they hold us back, destroy our world, and can only be destroyed, not redeemed. While it is true, we do have enemies who hold us back, and wish to pull us back into a world of darkness that they believe they understand, God came into this world to so that all may be saved. We are weary, and know that so many of our problems could be solved by simple cooperation, but we cannot let our weariness and frustration stop us from loving humanity.

The story of Christmas shines a light on humanity, showing it to be good, beloved, and something that almighty God deemed not only worth saving, but fully embracing. In the incarnation and the person of Jesus, we see humanity in its fullness: the image of God in all people. Jesus, born in meager circumstances, in troubled times, in a world covered in darkness, showed us what it means to be truly human. He shares our joy, our sorrow, our frustration, our weariness. He loved His friends, His family, the lost, the weary, and especially His enemies. He prayed for them, loved even them, died and resurrected so that all may be saved. He is the light that shows the love of God and us loving our neighbor conquers all things, even death itself.

Though it may not feel like it right now, the world is changing for the better. While we are living through a time of great turmoil, look how far we have already come. Remember that all we gave up in these past years was to protect the most vulnerable among us, no matter how alone we may have felt, we were all working together. See that there are so many standing in solidarity for justice, dignity, and accepting people for who they really are. In this great trial, we proved that when it really matters, we do love our neighbor. While we still meet resistance and those clamoring for the old darkness, these are the futile efforts of the darkness that is passing away. No matter how dark it may seem, we are never alone, the light of the world shines in us and through us. Let your light shine, for even a single light casts the darkness away. Amen.

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[1] Luke’s accounting of the census of Palestine and Syria falls under the Governorship of Quirinius, occurring in 6-7AD. Luke’s earlier citing of Jesus being born under the reign king Herod of Judah (Luke 1:5) draws his general timeline into question, as Herod died in 4AD. Though the impression Luke is trying to convey is the real world Jesus was born into, as well as contrasting “the powers of the earth” with Jesus’ True Kingship.

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