Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 40:1-11; Matthew 11:28-30; John 1:1-5, 14
When I was child, I didn’t know that Christmas could be a tough time of year. For me, Christmas was all about the bright lights on the tree in the living room, and Hark! the Herald Angels Sing (although I was never quite sure how the angels were connected to the Calgary Herald newspaper), and my grandmother’s Christmas cookies, and of course lots of people at church. I remember Joy to the World! ringing out as the last hymn of the Christmas Eve service, with everyone singing with gusto. I remember getting lost amongst the legs of all the people in the narthex as I looked for my boots to change out of my nice church shoes when the service was over. I remember leaving the church and everyone calling out Merry Christmas across the parking lot, and riding home in the car feeling warm and cozy and excited to open presents.
I miss that. Or rather, I miss that feeling. I miss feeling the exuberant joy of Christmas. I miss enjoying the chaos of all the people and activities. To be honest, I’m envious of those who thrive on all excitement and frenetic energy this time of year. Because I’m not there. Not this year. This year I keep thinking about my grandmother, who loved Christmas, and especially the Christmas story. When I was little she sewed a little nativity doll set that we used to retell the Christmas story, and when she down-sized, she gave me her old German nativity scene, which I set up every year. She used to make special Christmas cookies that I would help her with, and her favourite hymn of all time was Lo, how a rose e’er blooming. She passed away a little less than a month ago. I saw her a few days before she died, and the kids and I sang Christmas carols to her while she lay in bed, but I’m not sure whether she knew we were there. We didn’t really get to say goodbye. And so this year, when it comes to the exuberance and excited celebrations of Christmas, I’m not quite there. It’s overwhelming. At times it feels burdensome––the heavy pressure to smile and to be happy to and revel in every minute of the holiday.
When we see the excitement and joy of others, but don’t feel the same way, it can be lonely. Isaiah describes it as living in a land of deep darkness, the Hebrew can even be translated as death-like shadow, something the Israelites experienced when they were in exile. And along with that feeling of loneliness or exile, we often feel guilty. We apologize to our friends and family, “I’m sorry, I’m just not feeling in the Christmas Spirit this year.” Or, “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel up to going to the children’s Christmas Pageant service this year.” We often excuse ourselves from participating in the more exuberant activities with an apology. As if we have done something wrong, or as if there is some failing in us. We can get down on ourselves for feeling overwhelmed by everything, we might feel bad that we can’t just “feel the love all around us” and “appreciate the season.” We see the joy and light on the faces of the children around us, and on others as they get wrapped up in the Christmas celebrations, and we know God is with them, in their excitement and love for the season. And we can wonder if God is with us, as we sit, not in joy and light, but in the darkness, in the shadow of death, feeling alone and inept. We may even wonder whether we will ever feel the joy and light of Christmas that we remember. Whether we will ever feel the presence of God the way we did before or the way others seem to.
“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.” These are Isaiah’s words to a people in exile, but they are also words for us. Whether your exile from the exuberance of Christmas is caused by circumstances beyond your control or self-imposed, whether your exile is new this year or an old, familiar place, these words are for you. These words, and those from the Gospel of John, “The light shines in the darkness,” are God’s gift to us at this time.
The comfort of these words is that they do not ask us to enter into a place of exuberance and excitement in order for God to be with us. God does not lay any guilt or accusations on us because we are still in the darkness. God does not put any expectations on us to join in the festivities. Instead of demanding that we travel to the place of light and joy, God comes to us, into the darkness, into the land covered by the shadow of death. God joins us in our exile.
This is the Christmas story, though, isn’t it? That God came to us in darkness, that the Son of God forsook his place next to the Father’s side and came down, exiled as it were, to be among us? That the Word of God let go of immortality and perfection and transcendence and eternity and infinity and all of that wonderful stuff and, instead, took on mortality, and imperfection, and being stuck in the here and now. The Word of God voluntarily came into our darkness, to this place in the shadow of death, and “lived among us.”
And this is the joy before us. Not the exuberance and excitement of children––it may well be that we will never feel that kind of joy again. But we are offered a different joy. A deeper one, if you will. Isaiah says that God has increased the joy of the nation in exile, and then goes on to say that God speaks tenderly to the people, and gathers up the lambs, and gently leads the mother sheep. This joy of God that is given to us in exile and darkness is a tender and gentle joy, if we can imagine such a thing. Rather than the blazing of stadium lights, it is the single, steady flame of a candle. If we are looking for the light as bright as the sun, we will miss it. But if our back is already to the sun, if our faces are already in shadow, it will shine before us, small but there. That subdued moment of joy, subdued but still present, is a sign to us that God is with us, that the darkness, no matter how deep, does not overcome the light.
After all, Jesus did not come in the middle of the day, with a hundred attendants, and trumpets proclaiming his birth. The heavens celebrated, to be sure, but no proclamation was issued from down here on earth. There were no gifts handed out to the masses, no feast day declared. The joy he brought with him was quiet, small to begin with, unassuming. It was only in retrospect that we came to recognize the greatness of his light and his joy. At the time, it was muted, covered, hidden from the Empire, even. And yet it shone.
This light shines for us, too, wherever we are. It shines in the candles we will light this evening. It shines in the friendly smiles of those who are gathered here tonight. It shines as we find a moment to sit quietly at home on Christmas Eve, and maybe listen to some beautiful music on the radio. And if there are tears, the light shines in those tears, too. God’s light is not lessened by our pain or our sorrow. God’s light shines in our darkness.
The light of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas, that is sent to bring us joy, is not meant to be overwhelming or a burden. Indeed, Christ says himself, “I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” God does not require you to be exuberantly joyful in your celebration of the birth of Christ––the light come into the world. Rather, God’s gift to you, this year and every year to come, is to come to you, to be the light in your darkness, so that you are not alone. The Word became flesh and lives among you, comfort, and even joy, for you on this day. Thanks be to God, Amen.