Somebody chose December 25 as the day to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. And whoever that was chose one of the longest nights of the year, when the lingering late sunsets of summer are a distant memory, and everything just seems grey and full of shadows and cold. We have just passed the winter solstice, the shortest day; every day now moves us closer to the season of light. Into this dark setting comes God’s light, the promise of God’s incarnation in human form, Emmanuel, God-with-us. We have imagery of a special star shining in the night sky—that contrast of dark and light providing guidance to the magi. In a few moments, we will light candles to spread the light. In paintings, saints and the Holy Family all have halos to suggest their radiance. The passage we will read later from the Gospel of John says, “What has come into being in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
One might be tempted to think that God is only in the light. But God is in the darkness, too.
One of our members some years ago gave a sermon about God in the darkness. He said that most of the universe is dark matter. The things we can see—planets, suns, comets—account for only about 5% of the universe. If we say that God is only in the light, we cut God out of 95% of creation. But in fact God is in all of creation—or rather, all of creation is in God.
Here’s another image of God in the darkness: think about planting a seed, or gestating a baby. We plant seeds in the darkness of the soil, in that fertile ground that is life-giving. Bears retreat to dark, safe spaces during the winter to hibernate, and when they emerge in the spring, that’s when the cubs that have been born first get to see daylight.
Scholars note that some stables in Jesus’ day were actually in caves. We may have more modern images of barns in mind when we think about this birth story in a stable: wooden beams, stalls for the animals, a sloping roof. Imagine instead that Jesus was born in a cave, in that darkness where the animals go to be fed and protected from predators. Think as well of the creative energy in such a space. Caves are where we find prehistoric paintings.
Earlier this week we held a Longest Night service, and we used a lot of cave imagery. Jesus born in a cave, drawing what is in our hearts on the cave walls, dwelling in caves for a time as a safe space until we are rested and recovered and ready to return to the daylight.
God is with us in that darkness. If you have ever lain awake at 2am filled with worry about some challenge that looms especially large in the darkness, your prayers at that hour may have been especially heartfelt: “God, hear my distress! Show me what to do. Guide me.” You might even have said, “Shine a light so I know where to go.”
God hears us in the daylight, and God hears us in the dark. God holds us, loves us, guides us. So at this time of year, when we celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, what we celebrate is that God-presence in our darkest times and that creative energy coming from fertile darkness to lead us forward with light to see the way.
This week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Congress of the United States, thanking this country for all of its help and asking us to continue to aid Ukraine in its fight against Russia. He talked as well about light in the darkness:
Ladies and gentlemen — ladies and gentlemen, Americans, in two days we will celebrate Christmas. Maybe candlelit. Not because it’s more romantic, no, but because there will be no electricity. Millions won’t have either heating or running water. All of these will be the result of Russian missile and drone attacks on our energy infrastructure.
But we do not complain. We do not judge and compare whose life is easier. Your well-being is the product of your national security; the result of your struggle for independence and your many victories. We, Ukrainians, will also go through our war of independence and freedom with dignity and success.
We’ll celebrate Christmas. Celebrate Christmas and, even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith in ourselves will not be put out.
Ukrainians light candles against the darkness that is this war, this devastation, and say, “Nevertheless.” God is with them in the light; God is with them in the dark.
In a few minutes we will light a candle off the Christ candle and then spread it to all of you. This is literal but also, of course, symbolic: the light of Christ comes to us this night. And if it’s just one candle in the darkness, well, we can see a little bit. But if we share that light, if we pay it forward, if we all light our candles and hold them high—well, then we light up this entire space. That’s how it is with the presence of the Holy: it’s not for us to keep to ourselves. It’s for us to glow so much that people want whatever it is that we’ve got. So we spread that holy light in the holy darkness, and then all of us can see better by it.
May you feel that radiance deep in your soul. And may you be so guided by it that you can do no other than share such good news. Christ is born—in us. Merry Christmas indeed! Amen.