Christmas Eve Homily
Andrew Philip Long
As you entered the sanctuary today you experienced something that I get experience almost every evening when I leave my office to head home for the day. Some call it “The Golden Hour.” It is the time each day when the setting sun reclines in the sky just enough to shine all of its light through the west-side stained glass windows. When the sun is just right, this place is lit up with a golden light beyond description. Everything in this space is transformed by the light. The wood seems richer and more noble; the red pew cushions radiate and pulse like the embers of a fire; the golden circle around the cross on the organ case glitters and gleams. Perhaps the most beautiful sight of all during “The Golden Hour” is the stained-glass window to my right, of the Star of Bethlehem. The star window is the most joyful of all in the later afternoon sun, beckoning us all these years later to once again make the trek to Bethlehem.
Sometimes, if I have time, I’ll sit in one of the pews at about the middle of the sanctuary during “The Golden Hour” and just let my eyes drink it all in. I’m not a very meditative person, but it brings me great peace and calm. Sometimes I’ll hold up my hands and study them in the light. It is really fascinating because in that light I can see details of my hands that I cannot see at other times of the day. In that light I can see the scar on my right pinky finger where I had a little run in with a tuna fish can lid. In that light I can see how my right pointer finger is just slightly flat at the top where I sliced it one Thanksgiving with a carving knife. I can see the scares on my left hand from a bicycle accident I had when I was about 12, and I can see on my left wrist the place where the ski patrol had to place an IV in my arm after I fell and broke my leg skiing in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania in 2002. Its’ not all scars and marks, though—the “The Golden Hour” shows the muscles in my hands that have built up from years of studying and playing the piano. The light shining on my hands helps me to remember the communion services I have consecrated with them, the minutes-old babies I have held with them, the foreheads I have anointed with them, and countless hands of others I have embraced in Christ’s peace with them.
The light that transforms and illuminates everything and everyone in this place each afternoon is a wonderful way for us to think about the meaning of Christmas. The story of Christmas, the unfathomable tale that God took on flesh and became one of us, is filled with light. When the angel appeared to Mary and announced the conception of her child, the angel and Mary were surrounded by light. When the angel appeared to Joseph and told him to not send Mary away in disgrace, he had to shield his eyes from the light. When Mary and Elizabeth greeted each other, one pregnant with John the Baptist and the other pregnant with our Lord, the light caused them to sing. While the shepherds were in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, the sudden appearance and song of the angels almost blinded their eyes and stopped up their ears. The Wise Men, several days after Jesus was born, were led to Bethlehem by the light of a star.
The story of Christmas is filled with light and this light tells us something very significant about God. The gospel of John says, “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.” The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. At the right time, God looked on the earth and on us and knew that something had to change. It is just like what happened in the time of Noah. Call it what you will—sin, evil, bad behavior, destructive attitudes and ideologies—but darkness had started to capture the world God so deeply loves. But unlike the time of Noah, God did not send a flood this time to wipe the slate clean. No, this time God became one of us, a baby in a manger, to scatter the darkness that had started to get the upper hand. Light, the birth of Christ, the darkness on quick retreat—it is all a sign of God’s deep love for us and for all of creation.
In Jesus, the sunlight of God’s love reclines carefully in the sky to shine in and through us., showing us details and parts of ourselves we might not otherwise see. In Jesus’ light we see how beautifully and carefully God put us together in our mother’s wombs. In Jesus’ light we see how intricate our bodies and minds truly are, gifts from God that we can study and study and study but never truly understand. In Jesus’ light we see that we are capable of generosity, kindness, compassion, and peace, which leads to mercy, justice, equity, and love. In Jesus’ light we see that we bear in our bodies the scars and marks of sin, of bad choices and broken relationships and failure. In Jesus’ light we see those scares and marks, but the light shows us that they no longer define us, they no longer have the final say in who and what we are. In Jesus’ light we see how deeply we are loved by God, a love that we did not earn and a love that can never be taken away. Ever. In Jesus’ light we see and know that we are God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture, the apple of God’s eye, blessed and holy and protected from life’s beginning to life’s end.
My friends, this is the good news of Christmas. The glory of God’s light shines in Jesus Christ, born in a manger, and that light shines so brightly that the darkness cannot, will not, overcome it. In the complex and perplexing times in which we find ourselves these days, this is exceedingly comforting. Our world shrinks a little more each day as we are connected through time and space by technology. That same technology, for better and for worse, has brought us face to face with things about ourselves and others we might be too proud of. There is a new and heightened sense of division in our world, from the halls of the Church to the halls of Congress. As we enjoy giving and receiving presents this time of year we are confronted once again with just how many in our world, in the very community in which we live, have nothing. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “All life is an experiment.” While that’s true, it would be nice to come to a conclusion every once and a while.
It is into this that God speaks a firm and eternal word in Jesus. But carefully listen again to what the gospel of John says: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” It is not that the darkness is obliterated, but that the light will always be there as a sign of God’s love. The light is there, and it will always be there no matter what. God did not stay up in the heavens as a passive observer of the world. God in Jesus Christ climbs right into the dark places to be with us, dark places like a manger behind a motel in the backwater city of Bethlehem. In that holy and luminous action, we are lit up and we find reason enough to hope.
In this we also receive a very important and holy call from God. We cannot just receive the light and keep it to ourselves; we cannot hear the Christmas story tonight, sing the carols, eat the bread and drink from the cup, and then go back to life as usual. No, my brothers and sisters in Christ, we have to share the light.
From the day he was born, my son has taught me every day what it means to be a better man and father, and what it means to be a better and more faithful disciple of Jesus. Recently he has taken a liking to everything and anything that gives off light. His favorite light toy right now is this portable, battery-powered disco ball. If you look at it right now, it is a little worse for wear; the kaleidoscope dome has been bounced off of just about everything in our house and we’ve had to glue the whole thing back together many, many times. But it still works, and when Theo sees it on the table or kitchen counter he gets just beside himself until we turn it on for him. When we turn it on, he immediately cranes his neck back and gazes in amazement at what the light does to the ceiling. But then he does something really profound after watching it for a while—he’ll grab it and give it to me or Katie. He shares it and then he just walks away.
Light, like love, is only good if it is shared. And we who have heard the story of Christmas and have gone to behold the wonderful God has done in the manger have a responsibility and joy to share the light of Jesus Christ. Like Theo’s kaleidoscope, we might be a little worse for wear—actually, I know we are. But we still work, we still have a lot of light within us, and we know a lot of people who need to see the light and we are in many situations where the light needs to shine. We share the light of Christ with every kind act and every generous smile and every compassionate word. We share the light of Christ when we act from abundance and not scarcity, when we seek commonality instead of difference. We share the light of Christ when we value each other as children of God, and not for what we can get from each other. We share the light of Christ when we ask questions and honestly search for answers. We share the light of Christ when we work for understanding and peace, and give up the need to always be right. We share the light of Christ when we follow his way, when we say we believe and then put those beliefs into action for the building of God’s kingdom.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the light has come for the world to know the height, depth, and breadth of God’s love. Rest in that love tonight. Let that love wash over you and bring you peace. Allow that love to heal the things within you that are broken or hurting. Then, let that love, let that light, shine. Carry it around with you everywhere. Share it. Give it to others. Use it to scatter the darkness. Let it guide everything you say and do. And know and believe that nothing will ever overcome it. Merry Christmas. Amen.