Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas: Lighting up the Darkness

A few days ago was Midwinter’s Day. The winter solstice on 21st December marks the shortest day of the year; the day when it is darkest for the longest. When we wake up, it’s dark. And when we go to bed, it’s dark. If fact, daylight is in such short supply that there’s a winter gloom that hangs like a shroud over this time of year, especially around three o’clock in the afternoon when it starts to get dark.

For most of us there is still a residual primeval fear about the darkness and the night-time. We light up our towns and cities with electric lights, but deep down so many of us are still scared of the dark. The other night I took a short cut down a dark and unlit alleyway (without a torch) and I don’t mind telling you that I was very relieved to get back onto the main road to where the streets were lit!

There is something about darkness that unsettles us. If you’ve ever walked in the woods at night or walked alone down an empty street in the dead of night then you’ll know what I mean. So it is no coincidence that during the first millennium the Church fixed the celebration of Christ’s birth to December; the darkest time in the year. For these early Christians, who lived in a world without electricity and central heating, Christmas symbolised the coming of a great light into a very dark world and what better time to celebrate this than around midwinter.

And Christmas certainly does cheer us up, doesn’t it? The nights may be long, dark and cold but I think that most people feel a bit more cheerful when they see our towns, streets, houses and churches all lit up. With twinkling fairy lights, sparkling Christmas trees, warm log fires and flickering candles, there is a lot to cheer us up in the depths of a bleak midwinter.

However, Christmas isn’t there simply to cheer us up on a cold, dark evening. Many centuries before the birth of Christ, the Prophet Isaiah wrote that: ‘the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.’

There is much about this world that is as dark as a midwinter evening. These last weeks have seen terrible acts committed in Pakistan and Australia. Many innocent people have died as the victims of war or terror, or simply in tragic accidents as was seen in Glasgow this week. But there is also much unseen suffering: those who are homeless and who sleep on the streets in winter, those who have no food and have to resort to using food banks, those who are the victims of exploitation, and those who suffer illness or addiction behind closed doors. Then of course there are the small injustices: the ways in which we can all act selfishly or be unkind to each other. We see it in the playground, at work and in the family home.

The world can often be a dark place and it would be easy to despair. And yet, though we walk in darkness we can have hope because a great light has dawned.

Christmas is not about the parties and the presents. It is not about spending more and more money. It is not about turkeys and mulled wine. It’s not about Christmas trees or decorations. Instead, Christmas is about a baby born two thousand years ago for you and for me. Jesus Christ was and is that light that shines in the darkness.

In the same way that our streets and homes are lit up in the darkness of midwinter, the light of Christ comes to bring light and hope to our lives. At Christmas time, we remember the Christ-child whose coming was foretold by the prophets. In that child, all the fullness of God came to dwell. He was our Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’

In that single human life, God came to live with his creation. In the stillness of the night he came down to inhabit humanity with all the mess and trauma that we have to endure. Christmas shows us that God is with us and understands what it is to live a human life. And what is more, Christmas was the first act in God’s rescue plan for humanity. The Christ-child didn’t stay in the manger. He grew into the man who would be nailed to a cross on Good Friday and raised from the dead on Easter morning. Through his death and resurrection, humanity would receive forgiveness and new life. 

In Jesus, darkness was destroyed; through him and his coming a light has dawned and because of him we can have hope and new life.Though there remains darkness in our world, Jesus gives us light and the capacity for goodness and love. Even in the darkest places, the light of Christ can be found.

One hundred years ago, the world was thrown into the darkness of the First World War. Young men fought and died in trenches. And yet exactly one hundred years ago, on Christmas Eve 1914, a strange stillness descended on sections of the front line. Men stopped killing each other. They emerged from their trenches, exchanged cigarettes and gifts. They sang carols and there are even reports of spontaneous football matches. The light of Christ emerged from the darkness of war and for a miraculous few hours peace broke out. Men remembered each other’s humanity and God performed a miracle.

‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.’

This Christmas, I pray that the light of Christ would burn brightly in all our hearts and that each of us would meet with the Christ-child who lay in the manger and receive his peace and his light. 

Adapted text from sermons at St Barnabas' Alwoodley and St Paul's Shadwell on 21 December 2014.

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