Why are you here?
No really, why are you here? What do you hope to find on this holy night?
A word of cheer in a familiar carol? A still point in the great spinning world? A north star by which to navigate safely into an unknown new year? Maybe nothing more (or less!) than basking in the beauty of candlelight in the company of beloveds.
Some aspirations are a bit grander: among the green cards on which people write prayer requests was one last Sunday, written in child-like script with a hand-drawn QR code in one corner. The message said, “If you find this, give it to the pastor and you’ll win $100,000.”
Well. I suspect most of us have adjusted our expectations to something less tangible than financial gain. But that doesn’t mean they are any less important. In just a little while, we will light candles and pray that the shadows and cold darkness are shattered by the Light of the World.
I’ve been thinking a lot about dark and light in this season; the words of the prophet resonate: the people who walked in darkness. . .
News reports from war-torn Ukraine speak of the blackouts they are experiencing because of Russian attacks on their energy infrastructure. In Kyiv doctors performed surgeries by flashlight. Children coming home from school after sundown walk carefully with cellphone lights, and the National Philharmonic played its Christmas concert on a stage lit by battery-powered lanterns. The chef at a popular restaurant cooked on a sidewalk grill and as the coals burned red, folks warmed their hands against the frigid winter’s cold.
The sun had just set when I attended a vigil remembering the children and teachers who lost their lives to gun violence at Sandy Hook ten years ago. Readers softly intoned the names and ages of the precious lost, and with barely a pause moved on to the names of subsequent Colorado victims: Claire Davis. . . AJ Boik. . . Raymond Green Vance. . . so many more. The light shining from our tiny, battery-powered candles felt puny against the terrible reality.
A new demographic has been emerging throughout the country, both in rural and urban areas. They are called “kin-less” seniors; aging persons who live alone and have no close relatives for support and care and decision-making if they become infirm. No one seems to know quite what to do with them.
And what are you looking for tonight?
Behind our shiny faces lie stories that include changes by choice or chance:
A new diagnosis. . .
A growing rift in a relationship. . .
Anxiety about our children. . .
Aging parents. . .
Challenges at work . . .
Financial volatility. . .
We live in times that seem more difficult, with pressures and stresses greater than ever before. Fragile earth cries out against its injury with extreme weather events and resource depletion. The national mood is nasty and suspicious. Anti-Semitism and acts of hatred against LGBTQ+ neighbors are on the rise. We are a people who know what darkness is and sometimes wonder if that’s just the way things are.
Into that resignation and lethargy and denial breaks the good news of Christmas. We are not alone; God has come to be with us, to kindle a fire that defies the darkness. We look with courage into it and discover the light–perhaps only a tiny flame–that shows us something else, something more. We see that the darkness is not the final word; it’s not our inevitable human fate. This is the light that signals hope, the announcement of God being birthed into our messy, complicated lives and broken communities and with the vulnerability of love is here to heal and restore and reconcile us.
That light, my friends, is the meaning of this silent, holy night. What we seek will be found in the darkness.
There is no place where God is not; no darkness so terrible and so powerful that it cannot be obliterated by the light of Love.
A story that is dear to Central concerns a long-ago member, David Dwight Sturgeon, founder of Sturgeon Electric Company here in 1912. Just before Christmas, his 10-year old son lay seriously ill, confined to his bed on the second floor of the family home. The young boy was simply too sick to see the Christmas tree in the parlor downstairs. Only one of many disappointments illness brings, but one Mr. Sturgeon resolved to address. An electrician himself, he dipped some ordinary light bulbs in red and green paint, strung them on electric lines and draped them over one of the enormous pine trees outside. Young David could lie in his bed and watch the lights sparkle in the night. Colorado Public Radio took the story further by telling of how neighbors came to admire the lights and took up the practice themselves. What once had been decorations that brightened simply a single home now turned outward, the illumination shared by the whole community. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
And we are called to bear witness to that light, here and now. To lift our candles high in defiance of all that connives to extinguish them. To seek in the dark places of human suffering the light that is there, and to amplify and enlarge it so the darkness flees defeated.
I was so moved by the speech the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, delivered to congress a few nights ago. While making his case for more assistance, he spoke of the resilience born from a conviction that right will defeat might:
“We’ll celebrate Christmas. Celebrate Christmas and, even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith will not be put out. If Russian missiles attack us, we’ll do our best to protect ourselves. If they attack us with Iranian drones and our people have to go to bomb shelters on Christmas Eve, Ukrainians will still sit down at the holiday table and cheer up each other. And we don’t have to know everyone’s wish, as we know that all of us, millions of Ukrainians, wish the same: Victory. Only victory.”
“The light of faith” emboldens Ukrainians to endure darkness for a just cause. It encourages grieving people to galvanize to advocate for sensible gun laws and turning guns into garden implements. A ray of light shined on another creates bonds that build community and solidarity with people who have been forgotten or intentionally excluded. What might we do, once we’ve seen the light?
Friends, do not be afraid of the darkness. Look, and look again. For what may be found in the darkness is Emmanuel, God with us. The little baby Jesus, born in a borrowed room to young parents far from home, who would so quickly become refugees fleeing the murderous jealousy of a small King, proclaims that there is no night, no place of despair, no fear, no death that is outside God’s presence and care. Because we know the victory is God’s, we lift the light and follow in its path.
Michael Gerson was a conservative political commentator and speechwriter before his death earlier this year to cancer at age 58. A deeply faithful Christian, Mr. Gerson was invited to speak at the National Cathedral on his personal battle with mental illness and work he had done advocating for health equity. Knowing his terminal diagnosis; aware of life’s sweetness and brevity, he urged the congregation to pray for strength, for God’s promise is sure. But then he continued: When strength fails, there is perseverance. When perseverance fails, there is hope. And even when hope fails, there is love. And love never fails.
Look, friends. Here in the darkness of our lives, our City, our world. The light of love that nothing, nothing can overcome.
Thanks be to God!