Light and Hope

A sermon on the Eve of Christmas, Year A
Luke 2:1-14

Christmas has come.  No need to wait any longer.  Christmas is here.

For those of you old enough to reflect back, I would dare say that if you thought back there would be at least one or two Christmases that are most memorable.  Perhaps it was the last one you celebrated with someone you loved.  Perhaps it just seemed to that the Ghost of Christmas Present visited your home with brighter candles and your hearts were lighter.

Down through the centuries there have been particularly memorable Christmases as well.  Indeed 93 years ago this very night, one of the most peculiar occurrences connected with Christmas took place, and people are still talking about it.

It was in the early days of the First World War.  It was in the region of Ypres in Belgium.  British and German troops were dug in.  In these early days of the war how could they have known how long the war would last or how many thousands of their comrades would die.

No one is quite sure how it began, but British soldiers noticed on Christmas Eve that the German soldiers were lighting candles and decorating trees and even their trenches with them.  Then the sounds of “Stille Nacht” crossed the no man’s land between them.  The British soldiers returned with “Christians Awake.”

Soon with no thought to their safety, British and German soldiers were crossing the cratered ground between their trenches to exchange gifts: jam, cigars, chocolate, and, of course, whiskey.  The atmosphere of good will lasted the entirety of Christmas Day.  There were even reports of a football match between the sides, with Germany winning 3-2.

The good will spread down the line, in some places it was reported that hostilities were ended until after New Years.

What is it about Christmas?  Why does it affect people so?  Is it the memories of childhood?  Or is there something more profound at work on this night?

There is one aspect of the celebration of Christmas that captures my imagination more than any other.  That is the seeming struggle of light against darkness.

During the season of Advent, we have been lighting one extra candle each Sunday, our growing light chasing away the darkness.

Can there be any greater symbol than light, especially as we have just passed the Winter Solstice.  This is indeed the darkest time of the year.  The days are at their shortest – the nights at their longest.  Is it any wonder then that the three major holidays taking place concurrently, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa use light as major symbols?  In all three, candles play a central role.

But we don’t stop there, especially we Christians.  We festoon our homes and yards and neighborhoods with artificial lights.  Whether they are multicolored or just clear, the lights of Christmas some capture the wonder and joy of the season.  In this season of darkness, we kindle fire, we light lights.

This is an action born in hope.  The prophet Isaiah told of a time when a people who walked in darkness would see a great light.  The light he is speaking of is not the Rockefeller Christmas tree but the true light that has come into the world.  It enlightens everyone and the darkness has not overcome it.

The light that the Christ Child represents on Christmas morning is the promise of God’s love for us.  God has not abandoned us.  God’s intention is that we have light and not be left wandering in the darkness.

This promise of light, fulfilled in the Christ Child is a promise that is meant to bring us hope.  We live in a world that continues to be plagued with darkness, whether it be from other people, or institutions, or even countries.  There is still plenty of darkness around.  And yet the message of Christmas morning is light, driving away the darkness that does not understand it, and this light brings us hope.

But it wasn’t a candle lying in a manger that brings us hope.  It was a child.  The miracle of Christmas morning is the Incarnation.  The Incarnation, God made flesh, is one of the boldest and most revolutionary statements that we as Christians claim every time we recite the creeds.

By his Incarnation, Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, not only embodied the light that has shined in the darkness, but he has also restored a relationship that had been lost.  As you will hear in the blessing at the end of the service, in his birth, Jesus has reunited Heaven to Earth and Earth to Heaven.

When God became a human being, it was as if to draw attention to those things that the world and its people just don’t seem to get right.  There are those whose attention and passions are focused mostly on earthly things.  They give very little attention to the divine, to the spiritual aspects of life.  Their appetites and pleasures rule their lives, allowing their mortal bodies the greatest control over their behavior.

Then there are those focused on heavenly things at the loss of an earthly connection.  There are very real needs in our world that cannot wait for Jesus’ promised second coming.  The earth needs us to protect her, to care for her.  There are people in our midst that don’t need to hear a sermon as much as they need a warm meal and a safe place to live.

Jesus’ life represents a reunion of these two aspects of our existence as human beings.  We are physical beings with physical needs, but we are also spiritual beings who experience spiritual hunger, not just physical.  Jesus’ life and teachings draws some people’s eyes toward heaven, but it also should bring other people’s eyes back down to earth.

Jesus, then, represents this bridge figure, reuniting seeming opposites, but his life serves to remind us that in order to be fully human, we must embrace our divinity, and in order to reach the heights of spiritual bliss, we must live lives fully as humans.

In the New Year, some may embark on a new spiritual quest, doing meditation, reading all sorts of books.  Others will obsess about losing some weight or building muscle.  How about a balance of the two – spiritual and physical makeovers for us all.

So let us linger at the manger during this Christmas season.

That’s right, this Christmas season.  Tomorrow is just the first day of Christmas.  Everyone knows how many days of Christmas there are – we sing about them every year.  And yet come the day after tomorrow, stores will begin dismantling their displays, and some homeowners will even begin to take down decorations.

The world gives up just when the party is starting.  We have 12 days to celebrate the birth of the Messiah.  We have almost two full weeks to linger at the manger and consider the incarnation.

It’s not that merchants are anxious to put up their Epiphany decorations.  I’ve already seen hearts and cupids where the stockings and wrapping paper used to be.  Many people have grown bored with Christmas, and they are ready to move on.  We, at Christ Church, however, will not.  We will be singing “Christmas Carols” well into the New Year.

There are still others in a rush.  There are those who rush to Calvary much too quickly.  Some of the living nativities in the area actually end with a tableau of the crucifixion.  There are Christian retailers who sell ornamental nails with which we might festoon our Christmas trees.

Certainly we do not deny the reality of the cross and the resurrection and their importance to our faith, but might we take a little time to enjoy the life of Jesus and not rush to the death of Jesus?  Might we linger at the manger, consider the mystery of the incarnation, and like Mary, ponder these things in our hearts?

As the light has come to its brightest in the child who is born this night, let us celebrate that light in what is often a dark world.  Let us kindle the light of Christmas in our hearts this night and let us carry it forth into the world that the light may continue to grow and spread.  The light has come.  Our light has come.  May it truly banish the darkness and bring us hope.  Amen.

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