Christmas MessagePosted: December 22, 2019
2 [a] 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.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the days grow shorter until December 21, the winter solstice. I am not particularly fond of the shorter days, the longer nights. I prefer daylight into the evening.
Thanksgiving means many things in our family. It means being thankful, eating well, family time.
It also means a shift toward Advent and Christmas. The ritual we practice is enacted annually the Friday after Thanksgiving. We decorate for Christmas.
At our house there are distinct roles when it comes to decorating for Christmas. My role, always, is to go to the attic and bring down the several boxes filled with 40 years of Christmas decorations. Pandora is playing our favorite Christmas channel. It is a beautiful time in our home. Lynn turns our home into a holy place for the season of Advent. And the waiting begins.
There are the cross-stitched ornaments that Lynn made for our tree our first Christmas in Georgia. Here we were, not yet 25, married less than a year, in a strange place, far from family. The thought of Christmas away from home created a longing I had not previously experienced. An awareness was awakening in me that I could not yet name. The longing is as old as time–the longing for home. That longing is keenly present when Christmas draws near.
With every box pulled from the attic, there are memories.
There is the box that has the first Christmas ornaments given to our children. It also contains their handmade ornaments they made each year.
There is the brass Advent wreath my father made in his shop.
There are Moni angels gifted to us the years we lived in Philadelphia, MS. Moni was a potter who was a member of our Church.
There is the nativity set that sits on the mantle, given to us by Lynn’s maternal grandmother in the early years of our marriage.
There is the apple cone form made by Wayne West which Lynn uses to make an apple tree each year. There is the Christmas village given to us by Sam and Barbara Creekmore when we lived in New Albany, our first appointment.
Now there is another Christmas village that lights our home—the one we acquired from my mother when she entered the nursing home.
These are the friendships, memories and stories that sustain us.
I’m remembering the Christmases of my childhood tonight.
When I was six years old, it snowed in North Mississippi on Christmas Eve. We were scheduled to go to see my mother’s family. I remembered my parents discussing the weather and potential road conditions. My mother was uncertain, my father confident that he could navigate any challenge weather could present.
Darkness visited us that night.
We should have listened to my mother.
Traveling on Highway 30, west of New Albany, MS, we crossed a bridge covered with ice. My father lost control of our Volkswagen Beetle. When we came to a stop, the car was upside down. My father was thrown from the car (no seatbelts in those days), and miraculously he received the only minor injury. My father’s chin was cut, requiring stitches.
The rest of the family was uninjured.
After receiving medical attention, my father and the men of the family went to the scene of the accident, borrowed a neighbor’s tractor, turned the car right side up, pulled it out of the ditch, added 4 quarts of oil, and drove the battered car back to my aunt’s house.
By then, the party was over. Uncle Dalton, my mother’s brother closest to her in age, loaded my mother, sister, brother and me in his car and drove the 2 hours to our home in West Point, MS. My father wrapped up in as much warm clothing as our relatives could spare, and he drove the wrecked car home. My vague memory is that we followed him, warm and dry.
The mind of six-year old thinks many things under such circumstances. The conversation between my brother, sister, me, wondered out loud about the arrival of Santa Claus. What if we walked in on him while he was delivering our presents? The closer to West Point we travelled, the greater our excitement built. I can still remember the disappointment that washed over me when I walked into our living room and it was exactly as it had been earlier in the day when we departed and no Santa.
Of course, Santa did come as Santa had come in prior years and has come every year since.
I’m remembering this story tonight, the weekend a year ago when we celebrated my father’s life in the service of death and resurrection. It was a dark time in our family. Just five years earlier, we walked through another dark time in Advent, the death of my nephew, killed in the line of duty as a policeman on December 23. Sometimes it helps to say to yourself, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
For some of us, seeing the light this Christmas will be hard to see.
Indeed, many persons within our tribe of United Methodists will walk in darkness, experiencing the holidays with an emptiness that is penetrating. We remember our loved ones and the empty space they occupy in the places we gather. I remember last year praying as my father’s life was nearing the end, “Lord, please do not let him die on December 23.” The prayer was answered. Yet, the December grief in our family has multiplied.
For some reason, I remembered the Christmas Eve accident today as I visited with my mother who wrestles with her memory due to dementia. Somehow, recalling the story with her, stirred a memory for her. She smiled, then laughed, remembering. She laughed loudest when I reminded her that she said, “I knew we should not have come.” It was a rare moment of recognition. I give thanks to God that she is not aware of the dark spaces that occupy much of her mind.
In the midst of darkness, the light still breaks through.
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
If you were to ask me, I would tell you that my theology is rooted in the Incarnation. The darkness becomes more bearable knowing God is with us.
And yet, without Good Friday and Easter morning, Christmas is a nonevent.
Can you imagine—no Christmas. No Story. No star in the East. No Angels. No Wise men. No shepherds. No Mary. No Joseph. No manger. No memory of Jesus.
Ours is a story of rebellion and redemption.
The world still, as much as ever, needs a Savior.
Indeed, Jesus came…and comes…to redeem.
He redeems those exiled in loneliness, or addiction, or alienation.
Jesus is light shining in the darkness.
One of the ways we deal with darkness is the beautiful hymnody of the Advent and Christmas season.
In 1868 Phillip Brooks, penned the words to this now sacred hymn,
O Little Town of Bethlehem
O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years, Are met in Thee tonight.
The closing lines of the hymn resonate with me still tonight:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in; Be born in us today!
Tom Ehrich reminds us:
A messiah [was] sent to lead God’s people out of bondage and home across a fearsome desert, as Luke put it. A shepherd for lost sheep, as Matthew put it.
Apart from the darkness, the birth of Jesus makes no sense. All of us, in one way or another long to escape the darkness. To drive away the fear, the loneliness, the anxiety. The way we do Christmas is madness if we fail to acknowledge the darkness we are trying to escape. There are no good tidings unless we can acknowledge the darkness and ourselves as people who walk in darkness.
The light has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it.
There is an additional verse to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” not in our hymnal, that captures my imagination this Christmas:
Where children, pure and happy Pray to the Blessed Child
Where misery cries out to thee, Son of the Mother mild;
Where charity stands watching And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more. ,
As I write this, I can see the light from our Christmas tree reflected in the window in the next room. Across the street, the neighbor’s Christmas lights illuminate their home. I am comforted by the warmth of light.
I pray for you that, this Christmas, the dark night will wake, the glory will break, the light around you will comfort and Christ will come once more.
Bill and Lynn McAlilly