Sermon December 18 Advent IV John 1 Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever had Christmas in the southern hemisphere? I know at least a few people here will have done, and probably at least a few quite close to the equator.
And I find the whole notion of that fascinating. Not because the events of Christmas didn’t themselves happen in a temperate desert climate – northern hemisphere, of course, but quite warm –
but because SO MUCH of our imagery and symbolism and meaning-making around Christmas, connected as they are to indigenous (and mostly northern) European customs and traditions that are grounded in the earth and the cycle of the year --
SO MUCH of Christmas-ness for us… is about winter. Is about the closing up of creation for its winter rest, and the animals hunker down, and the birds flee, and the only green is the fir or the pine or the holly, and especially it’s about the darkness.
Every year at this time I wonder what on earth I’d do if I had to preach the scripture stories about Christmas at the SUMMER equinox, instead of the winter one. There’s just so much meaning wrapped up for me in Christmas being at the darkest time of the year. And I’m not alone in that!
Christmas as the light that breaks in, the light that shines in the deepest darkness, and the darkness cannot extinguish it. It’s no mistake that this is when we celebrate Christmas – its date was quite literally chosen by the early European church to coincide with the winter equinox BECAUSE of these words from the Gospel of John. Which are essentially John’s version of the Christmas story.
No shepherds or angels or wise men or stables, but this is John telling us of the birth of Jesus nonetheless. Connecting the Jesus we know to the Word of God – the creative capacity of a God who spoke creation into being. And God SAID, let there be light, and there was light.
Jesus, for John is this Word. This means of creation, this life-giving power. It’s this Word that for John is “made flesh”, embodied, in Jesus. All the Godness of God, wrapped up in a person, who dwelt among us, embodied. Who’s at the same time a light, that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
It’s so evocative to hear these readings at exactly the time when our daylight is shortest and our nights are the longest. I went looking this week for Christmas reflections written in English from southern hemisphere countries, and found one written by an American clergywoman called Lynne Baab, who moved to New Zealand for a time and wrote about exactly this strangeness of hearing familiar Christmas readings not at the darkest time but instead at the height of summer.
She said she didn’t know what to expect. That one of her friends had pitied her, for missing that northern hemisphere gift of experiencing the advent of Jesus into the world as a breaking of light into darkness. But in the end, she said, what Christmas at what amounted to the SUMMER solstice turned out to be like was actually glorious. Because there was SO MUCH LIGHT, it was like the whole earth was ablaze in Alleluia!
And I can see that. It’s a different meaning, but I can see how it can be a full meaning.
I have to admit, though – and I’m sure it’s just because it’s what I’m used to – I have to admit though that I’m much more inclined toward a meaning that’s less about glory and more about hope.
I really love the fact that just about everything that happens in our Christmas story, happens at night. In the dark.
I mean, the very first part of the story, when Mary feels the presence of God around her – speaking to her like an angel, like a heavenly being – it doesn’t actually SAY that it happens at night.
But somehow, I think maybe because Mary’s all alone when it happens, we often assume it’s at night. Though funnily enough, one of my favourite illustrations of the Christmas story, which is the book Nativity by Julie Vivas, actually pictures it as Mary talking to the angel in the morning over a cup of coffee. Which I kind of love that too.
But mostly when people have imagined the story and when artists have pictured Mary being visited by the angel, we mostly think of that happening at night. In the dark.
And all the other parts of the story happen in the dark too. The angel visits Joseph to tell him about baby Jesus at night, when he’s asleep, in a dream.
Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem at night, and it’s late and it’s dark and they can’t find any room in the inn, so they go to a stable for the baby to be born.
And the shepherds are watching their flocks of sheep by night! In the dark! When suddenly the sky is full of heavenly beings singing and proclaiming the good news that God has come right into the world, and they should go and greet him.
And the wise kings from afar follow a star so they’ll know where to go. It all seems to happen at night. In the dark. And the star stops over the stable and there he is, the new baby, and they bring their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
And even when King Herod finds out from them that Jesus has been born and wants to capture him – Mary and Joseph take him and they run. In the night, they escape as refugees to Egypt.
Everything in the Christmas story happens at night. In the dark. And I don’t think that’s an accident. I think, at night, in the dark, the veil thins between this world and what’s beyond. Our senses are heightened, even a whisper can be heard -- everything’s a little bit MORE at night. Because of the stillness and the darkness.
And I think God knows that that’s when we need it most, to know that we’re not alone, that we’re held in that MORE, and God is with us. Which is what Christmas is all about. God embodied in the world with us, always in the world with us, like a light that never goes out.
It’s never, this world, without that light. It can’t be overcome. It’s a powerful symbol of hope: one little light in darkness, it’s a comfort, it gives courage, it’s a guide –
And it’s an anchor that holds in chaos. Douglas Todd, the religion writer for the Vancouver Sun, wrote a series on Advent themes a number of years ago. And he noted that HOPE in the Christian tradition isn’t about fingers crossed and wishing wishing wishing.
That instead it’s about being ANCHORED in the world -- choosing “to take the risk of bonding with the earth and all its creatures” in the words of theologian Alfred North Whitehead – because God is here and this is what here is like.
God is good and with God all things are possible.
That echoes in all the parts of the Christmas story. Because they don’t just happen in the dark – they happen in the actual world. Where an unexpected baby can mean you’re cast out – or worse. Where you can return to your hometown, and find a 0% vacancy rate. Where shepherds can’t believe they suddenly matter and a king flies into a murderous rage when he discovers he doesn’t, and if you want stay alive you have to run.
It's the actual world. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God embodied in the actual world. There… and also here. In the snow-covered prairie and the far north and the Alberta foothills captured by artist William Kurelek in the mid last century, and in the cold and damp and dark of here. Now.
It does matter, where we are. For us, in this place, the gift of incarnation, of God-with-us at Christmas, is the gift of light at the darkest time, breaking in with the promise that it cannot be overcome. That whatever here is like, GOD is here. And God is good. And we’re not alone.