Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 24, 2010

2010.12.24 – “Not Many Nights Like This” – Christmas Eve 2010

Central United Methodist Church

“Not Many Nights Like This”

Pastor David L. Haley

John 1: 1 – 5

Christmas Eve

December 24, 2010

On a night devoted to good news, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but apparently, we missed the most significant event of Christmas 2010. No, it was not the half off sale at Macy’s, but Tuesday’s lunar eclipse, which occurred early Tuesday, which was also the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.  Anybody see it live and in person?

I thought not, since even if you had gotten up at 2 am, here in Chicago we were in the midst of a snowstorm, so you would have seen about the same thing looking up as you would have seen looking down. 

How rare was it? Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory tells us there were not many nights like this. After inspecting a list of eclipses going back 2000 years, Mr. Chester reported, “Since Year 1, I can only find one previous instance of an eclipse matching the same calendar date as the solstice, and that is December 21, 1638.” He went on to add, “Fortunately we won’t have to wait 372 years for the next one … that will be on December 21, 2094, a mere 84 years away.”  Since I missed it this year, I’m really looking forward to it, even though I’ll be 143.  (I might be viewing it from a different angle)

For all of us who did not get to see it, here – in time lapse photography – is what we missed. [Video]

What you saw was the sunlight reflected off the moon, extinguished by earth’s shadow, as the earth passed between the moon and the sun, blocking the sun’s light. For a short while, darkness overcame the light.

        Lunar eclipses in themselves are not rare, but what made this one almost unique, it that it also occurred on the day of the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year, when darkness also seems to have the upper hand.

Among those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, winter can be a dreary time, “White Christmases” notwithstanding. No wonder pagan religions held solstice festivals, to celebrate the return of the light; I’ve participated in a few myself. No wonder those of us from Scandinavian backgrounds, countries that spend a lot of the year in darkness, are masters at making cheery winter food and drinks, excluding – of course – lutefisk. No wonder each year at this time we go into a form of human hibernation called “the holidays,” during which we gorge on those winter food and drinks.

        You may wonder why I’m pointing this out, but actually, we’re sitting here tonight because of it. You see, no one knows for sure when Jesus was born, but most scholars think it was likely in the spring or early fall, because that’s when shepherds were out in the field, not in the cold of winter. (Shepherds may have been disreputable, but they weren’t dumb.) For the church’s first three centuries, Christmas wasn’t in December, or even on the calendar at all. It wasn’t until the 3rd or 4th century that Christmas was celebrated on December 25, the date of not one but two Roman sun festivals, both related to the winter solstice. In wisdom, The Church decided to hitchhike upon these festivals, much as commercial retailers now hitchhike upon Christmas.  So let’s all go home, and I’ll meet you back here just say May, September?

        No, we’re here tonight because powerful religious symbols are at work, the symbols of light and darkness, which still speak powerfully to us. Is it any surprise that religion and Christianity and Christmas in particular are full of images of darkness and light?  We read one of the most powerful just a few minutes ago, from the Book of the prophet Isaiah:

“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 . . .”

Though written two and a half millennia ago, 6 centuries before Jesus, these images still speak powerfully to us on this night when we celebrate Christ’s birth, as we sit here in the land of deep darkness.

In Luke’s story, Jesus’ birth happened at night, when the “glory of the Lord” shone round about the shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks at night. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the Dudley Moore, Peter Cook routine, in which Dudley interviews Mr. Arthur Shepherd, played by Peter Cook: Tell me, Arthur, how did you know it was the Angel of the Lord?  “Oh, I’ll tell you what the giveaway was, Matthew. It was this ethereal glow he was emanating. He was emanating an ethereal glow . . . “And as soon as I saw Him emanating, I said ‘Ello – Angel of the Lord.’”

Nine days from now, January 2nd, Epiphany Sunday, we will read the “other” Christmas story, told by Matthew, where Magi from the East follow the light of a star to where the Child lay; a powerful image of light shining in darkness.

Towards the end of the 1st Christian century, the image of light and darkness were put to their most profound use by the author of the Gospel of John, in the prelude to his Gospel, read on Christmas Day:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 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.” (John 1: 1 – 5)

Here’s why this image remains so powerful: 

There are times in life when darkness seems to reign, extinguishing the light. If you suffer from depression or addiction, if at Christmas you grieve the death of someone dear, if you have been through a divorce, or suffered the loss of a child, it can feel like black darkness, that there is little light left in the universe. No wonder at Christmastime, some churches offer “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night” services, to help those who suffer from grief and loss, especially during the holidays.

There are days when I read the morning news, when I get discouraged about the future of the human prospect, about the future of our children and grandchildren, due to the prevalence of ignorance and greed and hatred and war and global warming. Despite the birth of Jesus, too often it seems like darkness reigns.

Indeed, from Jesus’ birth, darkness threatened to extinguish his light. In Matthew’s Gospel, murderous Herod massacres the innocents, targeting the Child Jesus. The death of Joseph must have been a dark time in Jesus’ life. The ineptitude of his disciples and the hypocrisy of the religious leaders discouraged Jesus. The Garden of Gethsemane was a time when darkness reigned, followed by the darkness of the cross, when even the sky turned black, followed by the darkness of the tomb, when it finally seemed like darkness had won, and extinguished the light for good.

But know this:  darkness is not the end of the story. 

In Tuesday’s eclipse, as the earth rotated at 1,000 miles per hour and revolved around the sun at 67,000 per hour (does it seem like the room is spinning?), the light of the moon reappeared, conquering the darkness. From Tuesday night on for the next six months, daylight increases and darkness decreases. Tonight on Christmas Eve we celebrate Christ’s overcoming of the darkness by lighting candles, but on Tuesday night the heavens told the story for us, a powerful metaphor of Christmas.  How cool is that?

This is our Christmas faith:  “In Jesus Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Indeed, in this perspective, if we look around, we can find instances of light overcoming darkness; the Tribune today, for example, listed several: A man donated his kidney to a woman he barely knew. A stranger opened his home to a stranded traveler. A hospice patient found solace in cooking. “Friendships endure, healing continues and the ripple effects of kindness carry on.” (“Heartwarming Updates on Tribune Stories, The Chicago Tribune, December 23, 2010)

In just a few minutes, in celebration of Jesus’ birthday, we will light our candles. Some of you struggle right now in your life, and the darkness seems deep. As you hold that candle, I want you to remember the church’s ancient antiphon for the lighting of the Christ Candle:

“Jesus Christ is the Light of the world,

a Light no darkness can extinguish.”

Some of you get discouraged, like I get discouraged, fearful about our future, our children’s future, about the darkness in our lives and in the world. As you hold that candle, I want you to remember:

“Jesus Christ is the Light of the world,

a Light no darkness can extinguish.”

        All of us, in our lives, face the darkness of death, not only for ourselves, but for the people we love. As we hold that candle, let us affirm our faith:

“Jesus Christ is the Light of the world,

a Light no darkness can extinguish.”

Let this be our prayer – not only tonight but through the year – not only that the light of Christ might overcome the darkness, but that we ourselves might be a light in the world, a light no darkness can extinguish, in the name of Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

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