Joyful the dark | December 22

Text: Luke 2:8-20

Speaker: Joel Miller

This is the season of darkness.

As a sometimes biker to church during the work week I’ve been aware of the increasing difficulty of getting back home in the evening before the darkness arrives.  A strong headlight, blinking taillight, and reflective jacket gets added to the list of equipment necessary for safe travel.  Not to mention a coat, cap, and multiple layers of gloves.  The early onset darkness does make for a less crowded Olentangy Trail at 5:30pm.

The night from which we all just awoke held the longest darkness of the year.  The winter solstice.

Less daylight can have real effects on our bodies.  Cases of depression increase in the winter months.  In general, energy levels run lower.  It makes one consider that our animal cousins might be on to something with the whole hibernation thing.  They get to both eat a lot of food at the end of the growing season and sleep through the cold and dark season.  Trees pull their energy stores down into the ground where their roots hold the reserves, keeping vigil in the dark.

I recently saw a drawing with a vertical cross section of a winter scene.  Above the ground is snow and a barren tree.  Below the ground are the tree roots, a cavity with a bear hibernating, another with a groundhog.  And a third underground cavity with a child curled up and reading a book.  If not hibernation, then perhaps more of that inner child in these months.  Permission to curl up and enter fresh worlds of thought.

Spiritual and theological language has overall not taken kindly to darkness, treating it mostly as a negative contrast to light.  Like the verse in the opening statement of John’s gospel.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  John is without a Christmas story per se, instead presenting the nativity of Christ, the logos of God, on the cosmic scale.  A light shining the darkness, which has not overcome it.  Or, it could also be translated: the darkness has not comprehended it.  That’s one way darkness serves as a spiritual metaphor.

Back in October CMCer Katie Graber, on behalf of the Voices Together new hymnal committee, co-authored an essay about language in our hymns.  One point she makes is this:

“’Darkness’” has overwhelmingly been associated with sin, suffering and evil, which extrapolates too easily to the way race has traditionally been discussed.”

They legacy of white supremacy in our country gives extra cause for not limiting darkness to only negative associations.

They also write: “The words we sing in worship carry tremendous power to form our theological imaginations. The poetry we sing can become ingrained in our memories in ways that sermons and readings cannot.”

To which I say – well, at least this takes some of the pressure off preaching.

Our passage, and our image for today, is from Luke’s gospel.  It involves shepherds and angels, and good news for all the people – a child of peace born in humble conditions in Bethlehem.  It takes place in the dark.

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angle of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”  Question: What’s more terrifying than the dark?  Answer: An angel of the Lord showing up, directing its words, its energy, its presence, at you.

There are plenty of reasons to fear the dark.  We are creatures who have come to value sight above all other senses.  And in the dark it’s hard to see.  The far horizon disappears and the world is both endless… and no larger than our hand in front of our face.

Perhaps a primary reason for fear of the dark is that the darkness leaves us alone with ourselves.  The periphery disappears, the circle of view draws close around us.  We are with ourselves in our solitude and all that we imagine fills the darkness.  Screens from our devices go dark and the images we have absorbed, the images of ourselves we project out into the world, now live only in our heads.

The angel assures the shepherds to not be afraid.  “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”  It is joy, not fear, which will be the driving inner experience of this good news.  Joy in the dark.

I like to think that the shepherds welcomed the darkness at the end of each day.  How else would they have known it was time to stop.  Time to end the tasks of the day.  Time for the sheep to stop grazing.  Time for the shepherds to stop shepherding.  Time for them to tend to themselves.  To find a place to lie down.  To be responsible only for one’s thoughts.  To rest.

In the Jewish mind, still true today, rather than being the death of the day, the darkness heralds the birth of the next day, restarting the 24 hour cycle of darkness and light.  It’s not a coincidence that the creation story in Genesis 1 says, “And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.”  In that order.  The new day, and thus a new creation, begins with the dark of the evening.  It is in the dark of night that we are recreated for what the rest of the day holds– the second half, when it is light.

The German poet Rilke finds this and more in the darkness:

You, darkness, of whom I am born- I love you more than the flame that limits the world to the circle it illumines and excludes the rest.  But the dark embraces everything; shapes and shadows, creatures and me, people, nations, just as they are.  It lets me imagine a great presence stirring beside me.  I believe in the night.  Rilke, The Book of Hours  I, 11

If the mighty flame of civilization “limits the world to the circle it illuminates, and excludes the rest” then these shepherds were part of the excluded, outside the circle.  Even though the Hebrew Bible contains idyllic passages about shepherds like the 23rd Psalm, The Lord is my Shepherd, in the first century Roman world shepherds were despised as shiftless and unclean.  Looked at with a wary eye for trespassing property lines to graze their sheep.  But, as Rilke says, “the dark embraces everything, creatures, people, nations, just as they are.  It lets me imagine a great presence stirring beside me.”

And that’s exactly what happened that evening.  A great presence stirs beside the shepherds.

This part of Luke’s story stands in sharp contrast to seven verses prior when Caesar Augustus issues a decree for a census to be taken throughout the entire empire.  This word for all people comes from the top, the great presence has the legions of the Empire to enforce his word.

Now the word from the angels goes to the bottom, the shepherds, perhaps the equivalent of those in our time in danger of not getting counted by the upcoming census because they live outside the circle of the flame of society.  This angel-to-shepherd word is also for all peoples – they say it themselves.

If you ever get the chance to visit Bethlehem – which is a real place with real people and their own real struggles these days…If you get the chance to visit and wish to visit the Shepherd’s Field in nearby Beit Sahour you will likely discover that you have three options.  Rather than one, there are three sites that lay claim to being the Shepherd’s Field where this night time angelic visitation took place.  And, Yes, this does reflect historic divisions between the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions, each with their own distinct site.  But another way of looking at this is that they’re all right.  Of course there’s more than one location.  Where is the place where the messengers visit in the dark?  Where they proclaim their glad tidings of joy and peace?   In what field might the lowly be honored, entrusted with the dignity of such an invitation to come and behold the Christ?  It is there.  And it is there.  And it is there.  And not just in three distinct spots and not just in Beit Sahour Palestine.  It is here.  And it is here.  And it is here.

“You, darkness, of whom I am born- I love you more than the flame that limits the world to the circle it illumines and excludes the rest.  But the dark embraces everything; shapes and shadows, creatures and me, people, nations, just as they are.  It lets me imagine a great presence stirring beside me.”

It is the season of darkness, the season when creation renews itself.  Because we cannot see in the dark, it is the season of listening.  Listening for messages coming from beyond, coming from the deepest parts of ourselves.  The message is to not be afraid.  The message is one of great joy for all people.  Christ is born.  And the incarnation is happening again through you.  Rejoice.