have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
on them light has shined.
Those words from the prophet Isaiah haunt me this Christmas, because it seems like darkness is prevalent in our world right now. Whether the world is ending because of the Mayan Apocalypse or the Fiscal Cliff, or we are just plain grieving for news from Newtown to Syria to the shores of Staten Island and Breezy Point, there are a lot of people walking in deep darkness who need light.
The prophecy points to the fact that the birth of Christ isn’t for people who are already joyful—the shepherds were probably not having a great time on a cold night trying to keep warm with their sheep trying to make ends meet in a system that put them on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. I’m sure Mary and Joseph weren’t overjoyed when she went into labor while they were holed up in a barn. Christmas is for the people walking in darkness, who know they need and are ready for a Savior. Christmas is for the people of Israel—and by Israel, I don’t mean the Jewish people, but the literal meaning of the Hebrew word, “Israel,” the ones who are wrestling with God. The patriarch Jacob receives the name Israel after he spends an entire night wrestling with an angel and demands a blessing from it in the morning. The blessing takes the form of this new name, Israel, “the one who wrestles with God.”
So any one of us who this season is wrestling with God is Israel: if we are wrestling with God because of the darkness and violence of the world, the brokenness of our relationships, the reality of death, our skepticism about God’s very existence, in all those questions and frustrations where we want to grab God by the throat and pin God to the earth and say, “Why?”, we are Israel. And the birth of Immanuel, another Hebrew word that means God-with-us, is the birth of the realization that if we are wrestling with God, then God is very, very close to us. You can’t wrestle with something that is far away. So the Advent hymn with the refrain, “O Come, O Come Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel” becomes, “O come, O come, God-with us, and redeem those of us who are captive to our struggles with God.” Remind those of us who are struggling that blessing does come in the morning, and that our struggle is not endless, is not all that there is, but that struggle is a part of a faithful life. Rejoice that God is with us, in the darkness as well as in the light.
There’s a little known Christmas hymn that testifies to this light in the midst of darkness with a text by the American poet and translator Richard Wilbur (if you read Moliere in high school or college, you probably read Wilbur’ translations) and a tune by David Hurd, who teaches Church Music here in the City at General Seminary. The text begins,
A stable lamp is lighted whose glow shall wake the sky,
The stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry, and straw like gold shall shine
A barn shall harbor heaven, a stall become a shrine.
Jesus is the lamp inside the stable whose arrival is at once cosmic—the stars and stones crying out in celebration—and so very ordinary. It is the incarnation—the taking of divine stuff and bringing it to us in human, ordinary form—that transforms straw into gold, a barn into heaven, a stall into a shrine, and us into fellow heirs with Christ. Sounds like Christmas. But the gift of this hymn is that it isn’t just a Christmas hymn. It’s a gospel hymn. A full gospel hymn. Because the birth of the Christ-child tonight is good news, but it isn’t just good news on it its own—it’s good news because of what that child is going to do as he grows up. There is no Christmas without Good Friday; and there is no Good Friday without Easter. So this Christmas Carol continues with a verse about Palm Sunday, and then this one about Good Friday:
Yet he shall be forsaken, and yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken, and every stone shall cry,
And every stone shall cry, for stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead, God’s love refused again.
The mother who tonight celebrates the birth of her baby 33 years later will have her heart pierced with grief watching him die on a cross. The shepherds who tonight go to see the child in Bethlehem might be some of the very same people who cry out “Crucify him” among the crowd in Jerusalem. The stones that cried out in joy at Jesus’ birth weep at his death, at the hearts of stone the prophet Ezekiel promised would turn to hearts of flesh when bound by the covenant of God. Joy and tears, virtue and sin, blessing and curse, faithfulness and abandonment are mingled here, as in all things. As in all of us.
But just as in the Christmas story Herod does not have the last word, in the Gospel story, death and darkness do not have the last word. Mary will watch Jesus die—but she will also see him raised. The crowd will demand the crucifixion, but many of those hearts will be turned back to flesh upon news of the resurrection, and the spread of the Gospel by the first generation of Christians. So Wilbur’s text concludes with an Easter/Christmas blend.
But now, as at the ending, the low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry,
And every stone shall cry, in praises of the child.
By whose descent among us, the worlds are reconciled.
Every stone shall cry. Jesus’ birth and life and death and resurrection mean so much that even the stones cry out in praises of this child. It is so good that we are here to add our voices to the stones and the stars and the choirs of angels, and to remember that Jesus came to reconcile us one to another, and all of us to God.
At the Easter Vigil we begin in darkness and candlelight and end in the glorious splendor of every light in this church. Tonight we begin in light and will end in darkness and candlelight. Hold on to that candle tonight. That fragile, flickering flame is like this baby in the manger. As we will sing at Easter, “The light of Christ!” “Thanks be to God!” May the light of Christ illumine your way home, and may it burn in your heart tonight, tomorrow, and all year. Merry Christmas. Amen.