Isaiah 9: 1-6; Luke 2: 1-14
“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.” Silent Night is marking its 200th Anniversary on this very night. On a night when the organ had been damaged by flooding, the words of a simple poem, set to guitar chords, has managed to transcend time as an eternal carol. Silent Night. Holy Night. All is calm; well, at least for here, maybe not in your homes. There is, though, something that is aroused in us in the silence in the night, when our own hearts quake. There is obviously great joy that is so much a part of this feast. I myself enjoy the time with nieces and nephews because of the joy, the sense of wonder and mystery that Christmas holds, but also knowing that it passes with time. There is, along with that joy, often a deep sadness that many experience on this holiday, often associated with family and loss but also, in a way only a mother can know, the separation that takes place upon the birth of a child, setting in motion a deep longing and desire to be one. This feast, like no other, manages to bring together that sense of great joy and sadness all into one, pointing the way to finding joy in the sadness and pain we may be feeling.
There’s a sadness as well when we look at this creche that has a way of capturing us each year like nothing else. It’s not just a sadness that comes with what Christmas has become culturally but tied to the sadness of this scene, that like Silent Night, doesn’t find its way into our feast until centuries later, yet, a longing and desire draws us here to this place because in the midst of it all, it reminds us of who we really are. It draws us in and speaks to us in the silence of the night because at the core of our being, this is who we are and yet we’re not there yet. Everything about our lives moves us in the direction of becoming this creche, this scene of such peace and joy. Yet, everything in us, connected with that longing and desire for love and joy, pushes us to resist it all at the same time because we don’t want to go to the place of longing, to our deepest sadness and hurt. That’s precisely, though, right where we find that joy and peace.
It is where all the prophets lead Israel, as we hear in today’s first reading. It’s one of the most poetic of all Isaiah’s writings. But we need to understand, Israel once again finds itself on the brink of war. Poverty and famine have become a way of life. A chaotic and corrupt political leadership was the name of the game. Israel, more often than not, found itself floundering in life, not only feeling as if God had abandoned them in so many of their experiences, but the separation that came from their land and from one another. The deepest longing and desire of Israel was to be one and at peace but it never seemed to come to fruition. They have lived through the pain of an enslaved people. Isaiah, today, speaks of a people that knows darkness and knows it well. They are a people that knew pain and suffering. They are a people that knew separation and longing. But the thing about it is, like us, the more we look beyond ourselves to satisfy it only deepens the pain and loneliness. Isaiah offers a message of hope in finding the light in the midst of the darkness and not to despair, that what they desire they already have and keep seeking elsewhere. To be a people of faith they must find hope in the darkness of their own lives and trust that life will spring forth. Long before Jesus is born in this stable, plainly pointing out to us our deepest identity, wrapped in swaddling clothes, Isaiah learned to trust the interior life, the divine indwelling, knowing the presence of God and revealing a message of hope and joy to a people that knew darkness more than anything.
The same is true of Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds with hearts that quake. Mary and Joseph, in giving birth to the Christ, don’t somehow bypass darkness. Jesus doesn’t come with a blueprint and map as to how they are to proceed in all of this. The three of them are going to face utter darkness, not always knowing where they are going until they too are exiled. Their own history and connecting with it, reminds them of the necessary hope as they make this journey. The shepherds themselves will not make their way somehow to the top of the list in their time. Rather, they found their deepest selves in that encounter. In the quaking of their hearts, something begins to move deep in the silence, illuminating their own longing and desire for love and peace. As we hear in this gospel, Mary and Joseph don’t rebel against the religious and political leaders of their day. They simply through freedom and choice don’t become like the nations but rather grow into becoming like the one they bear, the Christ.
They will all face unbelievable sadness and pain in this journey. There’s nothing easy about giving birth and the same is true of a God who tries to birth new life in each of us, leading us to trust the eternal that has already been planted. All the stories we hear this season will point us in that very direction. What’s most important is that when we find ourselves in that darkness is not to become consumed by it and be defined by it. Whether it’s this creche or this altar, we are always being captured by the deepest desire to be love and joy and both remind us of that very truth of our being. We will never get rid of darkness. We will never get rid of sin. For that matter, we will never destroy corruption and abuse of power and all the rest because all of it points to that deepest longing and desire within us. It begins and ends with Christmas, with this very creche in which defines who we are. In our very sadness and brokenness as humans, who simply long for joy and love, we learn to find it in that precise place we’d rather avoid.
“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.” It’s what Christmas is all about. In the silent of night, the silent of darkness, a light is illumined, casting light upon our hurt and pain, our deepest longing and desire. Maybe we find our own hearts quaking this evening, breaking forth and invited to something new, a new sense of wonder, simplicity, and joy, a child-like spirit that reminds us of days long ago. It’s God breaking in. It’s God reminding us that we’re something more than this cultural Christmas that also feeds into that deepest longing. Like Mary and Joseph, we seek the courage to step into that very darkness, that pain, that longing, for it is there that they place their trust and find hope. We are no different. The gift awaits us all in that very place within our hearts that quake with the shepherds on this night, this silent night. Wrapped in swaddling clothes we find a child, we find ourselves, with the dawn of redeeming grace. Silent Night. Holy Night. All is calm. All is bright.