Christmas Eve 2006 Luke 2:1-20
One of the most important secular human events in history has been space flight. Not just putting a man on the moon or cute
little robots on Mars but more esoteric things like the deep space probes and the Hubble Telescope. The Hubble in particular
has revealed to us that there are other galaxies beyond our earlier imagining and newer ones being formed even as older ones
die or collide in the creation of newer ones. We are after all inhabitants of a rather small planet, third out from a small
sun way out on a spiral arm of a small galaxy at the edge of the universe, a galaxy we call the Milky Way and which was all
we knew of space until very recent times.
At the same time orbital flight and reconnaissance satellites have changed our perceptions of the this planet on which we
dwell. I remember in particular the discovery of those human like figures laid out on the ground in Latin America. They
were so huge that we didn’t know they were there even though explorers and civilizations one after another had waxed
and waned among them. They were elongated stick figures such as a child might draw, but these were hundreds of miles long.
They were first brought to the public consciousness in the National Geographic Magazine or Life Magazine years ago. I barely
remember them but I do remember that there was much initial speculation that the earth had once been inhabited or visited
by humanoid creatures from the depths of space early in the lifetime of the planet.
Eventually the conventional wisdom prevailed: that these were the undertaking of some earlier civilization, one of the greatest
engineering feats of all time. Theologians and anthropologists began to argue that these figures were the most ambitious,
imaginative, and perhaps desperate acts of reaching out to the gods that humankind had ever attempted. These ancient people,
lost in the grandeur of earth and faced with the immenseness of sky and stars, made a grand and noble gesture to the heavens
as if to say “Here we are, we are here, come to us.”
Considered as a work of art on the largest scale, they might have been entitled “The Invitation.” It was a request
of the highest order from a people to God, any God, saying, “Come, be with us.” It exhibited a powerful faith
that there was a god and that that god would respond to humankind. It is also a sign that the impulse to faith is implanted
in our genetic code, in the very essence of who we are as humans.
“Come, be with us.” We resonate with that ages old desire to call upon God to be with us. In our own heart of
hearts we make the same prayer underneath the words of every prayer we pray: “Come, be with us.”
O Come Emmanuel. Emmanuel: God is with us. Jesus Christ is born today. Alleluia.
It was such an event that the ancient builders of the great figures might have desired. Yet they could have no idea of what
it was like that first Christmas Eve night when galaxies shuddered to a halt and the universe stood still to hear the angels
“Come, be with us.” O Come Emmanuel. Emmanuel: God is with us. Jesus Christ is born today. Alleluia.
We get only hints of the powerful forces present on the earth that night, that night when God was born as the little Lord
Jesus, the helpless baby lying in the manger, with two almost equally helpless very ordinary human beings given the task of
bringing him safely to adulthood and the full revelation of who he really was and what had been given to him to do.
The shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks that night, felt the first touch of that unleashed divine power
radiating through and permeating the far reaches of the stilled universe in that moment: “Then an angel of the Lord
stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 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 the glory of the
Lord shone round about them.”
Of course they were terrified, these simple shepherds. Their whole world and their conception of their place in it had suddenly
been drastically shifted. For them nothing would ever be the same again. At the same time the event was of such magnitude
that when the angel released them they could do nothing but flee into nearby Bethlehem to see if what the angel had said was
true – otherwise they would have counted themselves insane.
“Come, be with us.” O Come Emmanuel. Emmanuel: God is with us. Jesus Christ is born today. Alleluia.
Far from being what the ancient builders of the giant figures thought, God came among us not as a Star Trek like god, but
as tiny helpless baby, given to humans to raise and prepare for what lay ahead of him. Our God put himself in our hands,
a deep and profound trust hard for us to imagine, except as we contemplate the depth of feelings we had and have for our own
children. He came not in a way and form so grand and complex we couldn’t get the arms of our minds around it, but as
the child pf parents so poor he was born in a stable. He came as a human, like us.
“Come, be with us.” O Come Emmanuel. Emmanuel: God is with us. Jesus Christ is born today. Alleluia. “Come,
be with us.” He came – and he is still with us.
1. St. Mary’s Fisherman, December 2006.
Christmas Day 2006 Isaiah 9:2-3; John 1:1-5
"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." Those who have ever been to the lovely city of
Santa Fe, New Mexico, in December know an unforgettable experience. During December the tradition in that city is for residents
to line their walkways, walls and rooftops (really, any flat adobe surface) with small paper bags filled with sand and a lighted
candle. These are called luminarias, a Spanish word from the Latin “lumen.” We measure the strength of light
in lumens. If one walks outside on the streets of Santa Fe on a cold winter's evening, when occasional gusts of swirl the
powdery snow, hundreds -- probably thousands -- of luminarias provide a soft, flickering glow to the city. And Santa Fe turns
from beautiful to magical.
Christmas always reminds me of the stark contrasts that frame this season. At the same time that we journey toward beauty
and wonder and light, we carry with us painful memories of absent friends and relatives, some more painful than others.
At the same time that we celebrate this "family" holiday, we are keenly aware of the brokenness of our own families. At the
same time that children experience excitement so strong that they are vibrating with anticipation, we carry in our hearts
worries about paying the bills and frustration at their less-than-angelic behavior. At the same time that we annually dust
off the word "merry" for repeated use, we are gripped by depressions that cannot be drowned by glass after glass of good cheer.
At the same time that we toast each other's good health, we are aware of those whose health is not good, those who carry the
burden of debilitating illness. At the same time that we profess to be following the light of a star hovering over Bethlehem,
we are moving step by step into the darkest days of the year. We have entered the long mid-winter, the winter solstice barely
So it is a good thing that John's Gospel begins with powerful words about light, words that make us think about who God is
and what God is up to in the person of Jesus Christ. Majestic words that echo the creation story in Genesis, "In the beginning."
There are words here that speak about eternity and the life of the world and the light of all people. Good words. Strong
words. Poetic words. Words that are beautiful, but also words that are difficult to pin down. These are the kind of words
that demand that we wrestle with their meaning. These are words that beckon us to theological contemplation.
Take, for example, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." We struggle with these words
because they do not say what we want them to say. We want them to declare that when the light comes into the world it obliterates
the darkness. That it takes the bleak mid-winter with every sadness, every despair, every raw deal, every horrendous tragedy,
every evil plan, every awful, life-sucking disease, and tosses the whole mess into the cosmic trash bin. We want the light
to arrive and to win, and to win big. We want the light to deal with the darkness in a way that is overwhelming, completely
Instead of total victory, we get something much more "modest" in John's Gospel. The light came into the world, and the darkness
did not overcome it. The light came. The darkness looked up and saw it and was indifferent to it. The darkness still continues
in the world -- that darkness which drags humanity down, that which nibbles at the edges of people's fractured souls, that
which sneaks up on people to devastate them when they least expect it." Wars and rumors of wars, parents and children against
each other, siblings against each other, poverty, slavery – the darkness is still with us. But so is the light.
There’s a story about a Christian education student at a seminary who was preparing a lesson plan on the ninth chapter
of Isaiah: "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." As part of her research into this passage, a student decided to try and find the darkest place on campus.
After hunting around, she discovered a little-used racket ball court deep in the basement of a classroom building, down two
flights of steps and through a few heavy doors. This enterprising student discovered that when you got inside and closed
the door and turned out the lights, it was really dark in there. It was dark -- totally dark. Scary dark.
When it came time for this student to lead her class through the lesson, she brought them down the stairs, through the doors,
and sat them down around the edges of the court. Then she said, "You are people who live in a land of deep darkness." And
she turned out the light. A few students gasped. Then it got pretty quiet. She waited.
In the hush and in the dark, they sat. They sat and waited. After five minutes, five surprisingly long, silent, and absolutely
dark minutes, she read the words, "Those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined." With those words
she lit a small candle. The small candle did not fill the vast room with light, but all the same it changed things powerfully.
With the flickering of the light, people saw themselves, and they saw each other. They saw faces-surprised faces, puzzled
faces, and even faces streaked with tears. For those in deep darkness, a little light made all the difference, all the difference
in the world.
"The light shines in the darkness," writes John. It still shines in the darkness: that's the thing. It is not that the
light obliterates the darkness; it is simply that the light is there. This is the message of the incarnation-the story behind
the story that we will tell each other this day. God enters into the darkness to sit alongside of us. God refuses to dwell
in the heavens above and from a safe distance watch the drama of human life play out. Instead, God climbs right into the darkest
places to be with us. And in that holy and luminous action, we find reason enough to hope, een in bleak midwinter.
Adapted from The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston, "Luminarias", December 24, 2006, Fourth Sunday of Advent, John 1: 1-5,