In the name of the Holy One, born to bring us hope and joy. Amen.
On Wednesday I sat down to write and, as usual, I decided first to waste some time by checking emails. Not much was there, except for a Christmas greeting from the dean of Yale Divinity School. It was a lovely and predictable picture of the campus covered in snow. But the text under the photo was arresting. This is how it read:
When the beams of the sun are dimmest,
The rays of the Son are brightest.
When the end of the cycle around the sun breeds melancholy,
The birth of the Son inspires joy and hope.
It’s a lovely juxtaposition of sun and Son, of melancholy and hope. It anchors the celebration of Christmas--for us in the Northern Hemisphere, at least—within the astronomical reality of the winter solstice, when the days are as short as they get.
The poet Wendell Berry said it another and more concise way: “It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.” [Wendell Berry, quoted by Anne Lamott in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, p. 39] That’s a fine little meditation on darkness and light. On sadness and hope. On the placement of Christmas near the darkest time of the year.
And of course we know that the winter solstice is already 3 days past, and the day now has a few more minutes of light than it had back then. The year is turning round so that the return of the light runs concurrently with the beginning of the new year. And it’s headlined by the birth of Jesus, God’s own self made flesh and blood, born into poverty in a stinky place where animals found shelter from the elements. This stunning paradox can drive us to deeper places of wonder and gratitude when we take a few minutes to reflect upon it.
For the infant is the incarnation of light and hope, born again and again into the darkest time each year. Jesus is a living promise of accompaniment through the worst that life might throw at us, coming into our own darkness and bringing light and hope.
And if this sounds like so much pie in the sky, then know that the only thing standing in the way is that we turn and invite him to be born in us, and ask him to help us believe.
“People Look East” is one of my favorite carols. It starts with this stanza:
People, look East. The time is near
of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look East and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.
[Words and music by Eleanor Farjeon]
The year is crowned by the entrance of royalty into our midst. Love, the guest, is on the way. His birth gave the world a new beginning—it’s as if God pushed the re-set button and the Christ entered into the world at the turning of the year, and brought in his wake / the turning of history.
This is the time of year when we think about new beginnings, as the year advances one more digit. It’s the time for renewal, fresh starts, resolutions. It’s the time of hope. The light in the sky is increasing each day. And the Lord of Lords is reborn each day in our hearts, and all we need do is welcome him in.
I think all humans love chances to start over again. They bring us hope and help us feel optimistic—like things can really be changed for the better. That’s one reason why the Nativity of Jesus is such a big deal theologically. It symbolizes God’s new start, and God’s offering of a new start to us as well.
Renaissance artists got it. They saw how the Christ Child was born into a world falling apart in order to bring hope and renewal. In order to begin a fresh start. You can see an example of such a work of art on page 18 of our bulletin.
It’s one of Albrecht Durer’s woodcuts of the Nativity, produced in the early 16th century, and it makes this statement about hope and renewal big-time.
You’ll notice that the stable is falling apart. It’s missing almost all of the thatching on the roof. The building in the background is in ruins. And here in the foreground is the child who brings renewal and rebirth, even as the world seems to be falling apart. It’s a wonderful statement. Art historians call its theme “Love in the Ruins” for very good reason.
God seems to relish new starts, and God brings Love to the ruins, for God offers fresh starts to us all the time. God’s forgiveness is instantaneous. God’s joy at one person who repents is exuberant. It’s never too late to turn.
And so the year is turning and the light is coming back. And there is hope and blessing in the air “that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him thorough whom all things were made.” [Book of Common Prayer, Collect for the Church, p. 540.]
But then the question must follow: now what do we do with all this hope and all these endless second chances? Howard Thurman, a 20th century African-American author, philosopher, theologian, and civil rights leader, reminds us not to keep the light and hope to ourselves. He wrote,
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and the princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among people,
to make music in the heart.”
So take the good news of peace and light and hope incarnate, and DO something with it! Visit someone who’s lonely. Take more time to listen to your children, whether they are little or fully grown. Work on forgiving someone and not holding onto a grudge. Make someone else’s life a little easier. Practice kindness. Incarnate the hope that the Prince of Peace brings with him.
One cold and starlit night, at the turning of the year, in the place where animals sheltered out of the cold, Jesus the Lord, the Christ, the Almighty God, was born FOR us.
May we live for HIM.
Amen, and a Merry Christmas to you all.