In fourth grade, Mrs. Brandell assigned each student in our class a state report. We could choose any state we wanted as long as it wasn’t our home state of Michigan. I chose Alaska. At the time, two of my dad’s sisters and their husbands lived in our 49th State, and I suspected my research could be greatly enhanced by reaching out to them. My Aunt Eileen came through in a big way sending me a large packet in the mail. Mixed in with brochures and maps and details on the North Pole was a photo of the Northern Lights that she or my Uncle Tom had taken. I loved it immediately, the wispy green of the light hovering over some trees, and it’s a lifelong dream of mine to see the aurora borealis in person one day.
The recent edition of Outside Magazine has an article titled “The Icy Sky at Night” about a self-taught photographer named Hugo Sanchez who, as the article describes him, “fled civil-war-torn El Salvador and moved to Canada.” Sanchez and David Wolman, the author of the essay, travel together to Alaska in order to capture spectacular photos of the northern lights. We read about the details of their seeking out that shimmering light in the long dark cold of winter, setting up cameras and tripods and waiting for the clouds to break. As Wolman describes it, “Growing up in Central America, Hugo never heard of the norther lights… But since relocating to Edmonton, Alberta, nearly 30 years ago, he’s had scores of sightings of what he sometimes calls Lady Aurora. … [W]hen the forecast looks good” he’ll jump in his car and head to a national park nearby to create spectacular photos of the light piercing through the darkness.
The Prophet Isaiah writes, “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.” Isaiah latches on to the metaphor of darkness to describe the life of his people under the rule of a harsh king. The people of Judah had endured violence and oppression under King Ahaz—he cared only about himself and filling his own coffers through political alliances. In addition, he was enchanted with the gods of other nations, and he began to worship them, including defiling the temple in Jerusalem in order for it to become more like the houses of worship he saw elsewhere. To put it bluntly, Ahaz was a bad king. He was so bad that when he died an early death, the people of Judah didn’t place him in the royal tomb with all of the other former kings, instead they buried him elsewhere.
His son, Hezekiah, took the throne after his father. It was for him that Isaiah first penned the familiar words: “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.His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” Hezekiah was already known to be an honorable man, one determined to do the will of God. It is thought that the description about this child born for the people of Judah was written as part of Hezekiah’s coronation. A new king was coming into power with all the hope and joy of what he would bring, especially since his father had been such a tyrant and because Hezekiah sought to follow the way of God. And Hezekiah became one of the most prominent kings of Judah. He tore down the desecrations in the temple; he ruled with justice and care. He indeed brought a great light to his people even though his own father had been the one to cast the people into a land of deep darkness.
It is so easy for us to hear these words from the Prophet Isaiah on Christmas Eve when this church has been decorated to the nines, and imagine they were penned for the baby Jesus. Of course, George Frederic Handel doesn’t do us any favors since many of us know his Messiah so well we can hum the tune that goes with these words. But the words of the Hebrew Scriptures were written first for a particular time and place, and we don’t do ourselves any favors by thinking that these words are just about another little baby who came with a tremendous amount of hope attached to him as well. Which is frankly true of a new little baby born into our own lives. Who doesn’t experience the birth of any child with immense joy of what the future holds for that precious little one and for ourselves?
Hugo Sanchez had a young son himself. Emilio was born to Hugo and his girlfriend Jamie in 2006, however he had significant medical issues from his birth. They weren’t able to hold the boy until he was two days old, and he stayed in the hospital for the first five months of his life enduring multiple surgeries. As Wolman describes it, “Over the next few years, Emilio went back and forth between home and hospital. His doctors never came up with a comprehensive diagnosis, but he had difficulty breathing and eating, could barely see or hear, and never walked or talked.” When Emilo was three, Jamie and Hugo made the tough decision of placing him in a home were he could receive the care and attention he needed. That’s around the time Hugo first saw the northern lights, they randomly appeared in a photo he was taking one night as he was trying to capture a meteor shower. That fuzzy photo gave him a new mission, and he was hooked. Whenever he could spare time from his work or his family, he was out chasing the beauty of the shimmering light in the icy sky.
Sadly, “in 2016, Hugo’s ten-year old son Emilio, died from complications caused by [his] profound developmental problems.” David Wolman writes, ‘Throughout the challenges, pain, and sadness of that decade, Hugo struggled, as anyone would, to make peace with existence and its cruelties. Yet he managed to do so, thanks in large part to photography and his quest to capture the northern lights.” Nature photography offered him solace. He found a light in the darkness to sustain him.
We know what it’s like, you and I, to walk in darkness, to live in a land of deep darkness, and to long for that great light to shine in and around us. That’s why we come out on a dark, chilly night in late December. To hear once more the story about angels and shepherds and swaddling cloths and a star, so that we might hope. Because we believe fully that like Hezekiah before him, this one will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. That he will indeed release the burdens we carry, and establish lasting peace.
At times we experience his birth like the wispy image on an old photograph, and we are entranced by it. And so we go out, hoping to catch glimpses of the joy that birth brings, showing up again and again in the beauty of the world in order to just catch a brief look. At times, the light of Christ is on full display, radiant and resplendent overfilling us with awe. At other times, the conditions aren’t quite right—our vision clouded—but we keep trying. We keep showing up. We keep looking for that light, for that love.
Just like in times past for the people of Judah, a son has indeed been born for us. Let us keep going after that light—his light—that breaks into our darkness. For it is in him that we can experience true and lasting wholeness. Amen.
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