Like our Celtic ancestors, we gather in the dark, in our greatest darkness to be present to the light–because this is how light is best known.
Christmas II | Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20
read, listen, or read while you listen!
Tonight we gather like our Celtic ancestors did long, long ago.
On the third day after the winter solstice, they’d gather for the first of four gatherings. They’d gather at dusk, return at night, then again at dawn, and then finally, the fourth time, in the daylight of what we know as Christmas Day.
After the longest night of the year, after praying and willing God to bring the light back to the world in the midst of increasing darkness, it was on the third day that their eyes began to notice the day grown longer: they could begin to see that the light was winning.
Like the resurrection is proof that the light can overcome the darkness of the crucifixion, we can see this same victory in creation, in the world, as our days grow longer.
And each time our ancestors gathered, they would tell a part of the story.
And the part they would tell first is not one we’re used to hearing on Christmas Eve. It’s the most unlikely of Christmas gospels. I read it at the earlier service: the Genealogy which begins Matthew’s gospel.
The First Story Told
While most of us skip over that to get to the good part, those early Celtic Christians saw something in the genealogy we don’t.
This genealogy doesn’t whitewash Jesus’s family history. In fact, it bares some of the most sordid and scandalous parts. The rapes and murders. The women wronged by the men who are responsible for their safety.
There are some really sordid details in this crazy genealogy, but that may be the author’s point. The evangelist doesn’t shy away from naming the ways the people have strayed.
Like how the evangelist highlights in bold typeface or bright yellow that jumps off the page:
“And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah”
It doesn’t speak Bathsheba’s name (though it mentions several other women) because it wants the hearer to hear the crime embedded in their story!
In all, several women are integral to the story and save the blessing!
It highlights the Exile in Babylon and some of our lowest moments.
It takes all of this history of humanity straying from God and God still sticks by us.
These are Jesus’s ancestors.
Our ancestors read this genealogy to remind themselves the most important part of the Christian story isn’t that a baby was born or even that this particular baby was born, but that this is how God comes to us in creation.
The light comes when it’s dark. Not at the summer solstice, when the day never seems to end, but now, when it feels like day will never dawn.
The Second Story Told
At the first gathering, our ancestors did the genealogy. At the next two gatherings, the one on Eve night and the next at dawn the next day, they would read this story from Luke.
And they would split it in half. So at the earlier service, they could focus on the birth: what we call the Incarnation. A story of a rejected royal family forced to sleep in the street, unable to find a bed in their own hometown. And the call to the shepherds in the middle of the night.
In the midst of darkness, light comes.
And because they had already heard about their history, they would know that there is more than one incarnation. That God keeps becoming real in the world in our darkest times.
A first incarnation came in the creation of the world, infusing all of this with God. So coming to us, being incarnate, is what God does!
But the story doesn’t end with the coming of the light. It continues. We keep reading.
Luke draws our attention from the beleaguered family, whose love shines through their own darkness, to shepherds. It becomes their story as angels tell them about the light.
Now please remember that shepherds in the first century around Bethlehem weren’t ordinary laborers. They were often outcasts forced into this work as punishment.
Shepherds were in a constant state of ritual impurity. They huddled with their sheep to keep warm. They were dirty, smelled, and could risk your ritual purity. So clearly they weren’t the life of the party.
So when they did come into town they smelled bad. They stunk. And that stinkyness continued their outcastness. That’s how the people knew to shun them. Not just because of their poor hygiene, but it was a reminder that they were bad people to begin with.
That’s how they saw it.
Resist the impulse to say “not all shepherds.” Because the point isn’t to speak to all shepherds. This isn’t really about sheep-herding. It’s a direct image of who in society knows the darkness well and who needs the light.
These are our shepherds…
So substitute for those shepherds those people you know who need the light the most. Who needs light in their darkness? Think particularly of those without the resources to sense the light is winning.
People without money, family, a home…those suffering with a mental illness or tragedy…friends who are sick or confronting their own mortality…the people you know personally.
And think, too, of people you don’t know but know of. Include the marginalized groups who suffer the dangers of war and the indignity of surviving a natural disaster.
Remember especially those suffering in Puerto Rico without power and clean water: how dark this time is for them. Remember those in Yemen, starving and suffering through genocide.
And lest we forget, the millions of people terrorized by the threat of drones; missiles raining from the sky with no warning and seemingly at random. Entire lives lived under threat, dishonor, and oppression. Every day is as dark as the last.
These are our shepherds.
The Third Story Told
And in the third gathering much like this one tonight, with their hearts turned toward sin and suffering, toward the darkest hours; they’d gather again to hear the rest of the story about the shepherds.
It wouldn’t be now, but a few hours from now. They would gather as the first signs of light break through the sky and the inky black goes indigo; and we know something is coming.
We’d hear about the good news coming to the shepherds in the night. And the good news of God’s great in-breaking didn’t just come to them: it provoked them.
The story came to life as they visited the Holy Family. They, like Saint Thomas, wanted to see the light, to feel it and know it.
These are the ones who attended Jesus, the Christ at his birth. They shared the story that had come to them. They became the living story.
Because they shared and continued to share that the light had come! The darkness is receding! The new day is dawning and soon will be here!
What our ancestors knew was that this story, is beyond all stories because it is the substance of all stories. It is in the very fabric of our world.
Our Story Told
And because we have encountered the story in all its forms—in the gospel reading we hear in church and the Christmas miracles we witness in the world—we become part of this big story. Our story becomes a chapter in a book millions and millions of pages long and continuously written.
A story about a God whose love for us is so momentous that our repeated mistakes can be forgiven and our outsized hope is enough to change the world.
Just like our ancestors, we come out here in the darkness to see a great light. To dive through all the pain and sadness to see the exquisite joy in being in the presence of God. To hear the angel voices and to see the Christ in our midst.
A Jesus who isn’t just a baby, but a kid, teen, young adult, middle-aged, senior citizen: Jesus in all his forms as hungry for the light as the Jesus next to her.
We come together to share in the good news. Our good news. Good News that in this dark night, the light is coming again.