A merry Christmas to you all, it’s a true pleasure to see you all here tonight to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ with our church family, in the midst of all this Christmas splendor, in the warmth created by being with each other, and by the one million BTU furnace in the basement. It’s cold tonight, but not cold enough to stop us from giving glory to God.
This has been a cold and dark season for many. It will be Christmas 2014 before the Jersey Shore and New York City look anything like they did before Hurricane Sandy made her way up the coast. Lord only knows what’s going on down in Paulsboro, what kind of effect those four railroad cars worth of vinyl chloride will have on our neighbors there. Someone tried to burn down the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn yesterday, with church members and Sandy relief volunteers inside. On Friday we will right here commemorate the victims of the massacre in Newtown, the victims of an evil almost too horrible to even mention. Ten days ago we lost a pillar of our church, 97 years old. There are certainly any number of untold sadnesses. For many, this has been a dark season.
And yet, in and through the darkness, a light shines. It is Christmas, after all, a time when, as Isaiah put it, when those who walked in darkness have seen a great light; a time when those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. For unto them a Child is born; unto them a Son is given.
Isaiah didn’t write that down 700 years before that Child would be born because things were going great. The Promised Land was and is a land of contention; Israel is not the most useful land in the world, but it is on the way to some of the most useful lands in the world, and so the Israelites spent most of their time fighting off their enemies, with varied levels of success. The Romans considered Israel to be a bit of a backwater; Pontius Pilate is always depicted as being eager for his next promotion, if only to get the heck out of Israel.
Now imagine you’re an Israelite who is from the backwater part of that backwater, and you’ll get an idea of what it was like to be Joseph when Caesar Augustus proclaimed that everyone had to go to his hometown to be taxed. Bethlehem, the hometown of Joseph as well as his ancestor King David, is essentially a suburb of Jerusalem, several miles down the hill to the south. It wasn’t a terrifically impressive place, but its place in history is kinda outsized. Bethlehem has managed to be called by the same name for over 3500 years, which is impressive when you consider how many overlords it has had in that time. Bethlehem is pronounced almost the same in Canaanite, Arabic, and Hebrew, but it means different things in each: “‘Temple of the God Lakhmu’ in Canaanite, ‘House of Bread’ in Hebrew and Aramaic, ‘House of Flesh’ in Arabic.”1 Rachel, wife of Jacob himself (think ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’), is buried in Bethlehem, which is pretty impressive. If you were to follow in Joseph and Mary’s footsteps today, Bethlehem might strike you as only slightly more impressive now. The most impressive thing there is the Church of the Nativity, which is the oldest church still in use in the Holy Land. Built by St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, in A.D.326 and built around and rebuilt through the years, the church has managed to stay standing against all odds. The most impressive thing there can be found down in the grotto, in the cave chapel: there you will find a solid silver version of (what? That’s, right), the manger Jesus was laid in at His birth. But that’s about as far as it goes: if you were to go back in time and be able to trail Joseph and Mary into Bethlehem on that first Christmas Eve, you would have been hard pressed to find something to be impressed about. Certainly the hotel accommodations were nothing to write home about. Those were dark days.
And yet, in and through the darkness, a Light shined, and shines still. Jesus chose one of the darkest corners of the world in which to be born, the Light of the world shining from the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it. I heard from our Bishop this week that “Chinese Christians, when they translate “Silent Night,” use characters that literally mean, “In 10,000 darknesses the light shines gloriously.””2 This has been a trying season, a season of darkness for many, but even in 10,000 darknesses, the light shines gloriously. This Christmas, after we sing Silent Night and go back into the world, remember to follow again in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary, into Bethlehem and past the No Vacancy sign, down into the grotto and to that manger from whence the Light first shined; for unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; may the light of His countenance always be upon you, and may you have a very merry Christmas.
2The Rt. Rev. George E. Councell, Christmas Letter 2012.