Nine hours, four minutes and thirty-seven seconds. That’s the amount of daylight we get today, often given the misnomer of the “Shortest Day of the Year” when it should be “The Day with the Least Amount of Daylight,” but who am I to quibble. Nine hours, four minutes and thirty-seven seconds is not much sunlight no matter how you parse it out.
It’s the time when we sit in a great darkness. And even though it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, sometimes it just isn’t. Sometimes circumstances rock our boats as if a storm has kicked up, and the waves are beginning to crash over the hull of the boat, and fear sets in. The loss of a job, hardship in a relationship, a painful diagnosis, the death of someone you love, addiction, trouble with a family member, a huge misunderstanding, infidelity. Oh that list can go on and on, and I’ve known many a Christmas seasons of my own that fit those bleak descriptions. Like the one Christmas when doctors found multiple spots on my Dad’s lungs. Or the year we moved and nothing felt right. That Christmastide when the company I worked for shuttered its doors the very week Melissa and I got married. The years my mom’s depression overshadowed Christmas during my childhood.
There are seasons when it feels like it is always dark. When even the scant hours of light don’t really penetrate. Days when we just go through the motions, or curl up on the sofa, or mindlessly wander down that information superhighway. When it all just feels like too much and the images from retailers of how a new [fill in the blank] will make our family complete really just push us to the brink.
Into these circumstances comes the words from the prophet Isaiah that we heard tonight. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” And then we’re given the reason why there is now light streaming in all around. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Jesus comes into the darkness.
Which is exactly the point of the story. I often cringe when I see the wall of religious Christmas cards at a store showing beautiful pictures of Mary and Joseph with a smiling baby Jesus to boot. These depictions over glamorize the difficulty the couple experienced traveling by foot with a donkey the few days before, never mind Mary having to do so while carrying a full term baby. They would have experienced the intensity of the sun during the day and the bitter cold of the desert at night. They would have been fearful of strangers or the possibility of thieves. Add in the circumstances around Mary’s pregnancy, and Joseph’s decision to remain faithful to her. Surely their families had said a choice word or three to them both about their disappointment. When they finally arrived to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem, there wasn’t any room for them — either because they were full up or because word of that unexpected pregnancy traveled faster than they did. And so they made the best they could among the animals when Mary’s contractions became more intense. And then in the midst of it all, a child is born; a son is given.
Jesus came not to a palace, but a barn. He came not into plasticky scenes of perfection, but into the darkness. He was welcomed not by nursemaids and an adoring extended family but cows and shepherds who had been let in on the secret.
Through his birth we see the very point of Jesus’ life and ministry. He comes into the dark places. He enters in to situations of immense difficulty and fear. He embodies the very words of the Prophet Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. For a child has been born.”
And he comes to us.
“O come, O come Emmanuel” we’ve sung throughout this evening. Emmanuel means “God-with-us.” “Come you who is ‘God-with-us.’ Be with us in the darkness. Ransom us—release us—from all that keeps us captive. We’re mourning in this time of exile, this time when we feel so far from home. Come to us. Be with us. For you are Emmanuel.” And then we join in the refrain that has been sung since at least the Middle Ages. “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall ransom captive Israel.”
Even in the darkness we are to see the flicker of joy. In the midst of the hard times in our lives, we are to know that God is indeed present with us. No matter what brought you through the doors this evening—whatever it is that has made this Christmas Blue—know that this isn’t somehow a ding on you as a person. That you are somehow less than beloved by God for the current circumstances in your life. Whether the darkness came of your own devising, of the actions of others, or of situations beyond your control know that these things do not move you beyond the care of our God. In fact, they bring you closer to the Almighty One. Emmanuel was born to redeem us, to release us from captivity, to bring us calm in the midst of life’s raging storms. He came to bring light to the darkness.
Nine hours, four minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Tomorrow we’ll add three seconds, then six more the following day. We add 15 seconds on Christmas Day, and those additions will total over 9 minutes by the time the Magi arrive on the Epiphany. Light is beginning to break into our world once more, and into our hearts too. Emmanuel will come again bringing light to scatter the darkness from before us, and the Lord will remain with us throughout each of the difficult days because God loves us. God cares for us and desires for us to know deep within that God’s presence will never leave us, no matter how dark it gets. Amen.