Nativity of Our Lord
Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10 | Psalm 98 | John 1:1-14
Check out a reflection by Rev. Craig Mueller of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on the spirituality of the winter solstice here.
Earlier this fall I was camping with some friends up in Wisconsin, a few minutes walk from the western shore of Lake Michigan. We had decided one morning to get up really early to watch the sun rise over the lake. It was cold and dark and we sat huddled together on the sand just looking out at the darkness, the wind blowing through the grassy sand and the waves talking to the wind.
It was cloudy that morning, so cloudy that we didn’t actually end up seeing the sun, rise. Instead, the black sky turned gradually purple and then pink and orange. I remembered, as I do just about every time I watch the sun rise, how amazing it is that this happens every morning, and how amazingly seldom I pay attention to it.
I leaned over to my friend and said something to that effect. “Wow. This happens every morning whether I’m here or not.”
And he replied, “Actually, if you think about it, the sunrise doesn’t happen every morning… It’s actually happening all the time. The sun is constantly rising. You just see it wherever you are.”
Tonight we’re living in that moment of cosmic awe between night and day, that sense of interconnectedness with humans around the world – and the whole cosmos – that happens when we observe things like sunrises, or solar eclipses, or babies being born, or someone taking their last breath.
Christmas is a festival of the incarnation, which means that the God of the cosmos is made flesh in the person of Jesus. Tonight is when eternity meets time. The transcendent power of God that is beyond imagination comes to us in the most ordinary way possible.
In a small town, in a crowded room, into a poor family, by an unwed mother, inside a feeding trough for animals, God’s Word becomes flesh and lives among us.
Earlier this morning we read the Christmas story from the beginning of Luke’s gospel, complete with angels and shepherds and songs (and if you weren’t here this morning I highly encourage you to read that passage tonight before bed – it’s a good one). What we didn’t hear from Luke’s gospel – what we don’t hear from any gospel – is any indication of exactly which day was Jesus’s birthday. We don’t even really get a time of year, except to know that it was time for a census.
We celebrate Christmas on December 25th because in the third century, around the time that the earliest Christians started celebrating Christ’s birth as a festival, December 25th was the winter solstice – the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. (Of course now things have shifted slightly and our solstice in 2017 was Thursday, December 21st.)
Those early Christians could have decided to celebrate Christmas on any day of the year really, but there was something about the incarnation, the Word made flesh, that connected for them to the longest night of the year.
Perhaps it was the simple fact that they had this prologue to John’s gospel, the same one we read tonight, that talks about Jesus as the Word of God, which gives life and light to all the world. The light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it, not even on the longest night of the year.
For John, “darkness” didn’t mean blackness of shade or skin, nor sadness, nor even literal absence of light. John uses the word “darkness” throughout his gospel to represent those things that stand in opposition to the life of God. Shadows, gloom, obscurity, oppression.
Christmas is a night to remember that the light of Christ comes even on the longest of nights.
And perhaps there was something else, too about Jesus’s birth that drew these early Christians to celebrate it on the solstice. Something about the longing that people feel – maybe you’ve felt it on these short days? – longing for the sun to return and bring its gifts of warmth and photo-energy and life. The winter feels cold but somehow it would feel a little less cold if we just had some sunlight.
And that feeling of longing for life is familiar to us in deeper ways too.
Sometimes when you take a step back and look at the trajectory of your life, the trajectory of our world, it seems pretty bleak. “If things keep going on like this, I think we’re headed for some difficult times ahead,” I’ve heard some of you say.
Some of you wonder how much longer our planet will even be able to sustain life if human patterns of destruction and carelessness continue. Life gets harder and the news gets scarier. Things don’t come as easily as they once did. “Everything’s going up.”
And just look outside, I mean every day is darker than the one before it. If you follow the pattern, the night will just keep getting longer and longer until there’s no more daylight left at all, and we’re left here in obscurity – –
Except of course, we know that doesn’t happen, don’t we? The winter solstice.
The sun ends its journey southward, pauses on the tropic of Capricorn and then begins its journey back north. Or seen from another perspective, the sort of tilty earth just keeps making its way around the sun.
Yes, the ancient people knew their astrology, better than we do. They knew that after the solstice the days would start getting longer again, the sun lending more and more of its energy and warmth to nourish the needy earth. They certainly didn’t need assurance of that – it was as certain as the sun will rise each morning.
Perhaps it was the other darknesses of their world that seemed less certain to turn towards goodness and life. Perhaps they, like us, needed to gather at least once a year to remember that all the signs that God has given them: the cycles of nature and especially the birth of Christ, point towards hope.
Not once yet has the night kept getting longer and longer until the earth is in total darkness. Not once yet has the winter not turned to spring. Not once yet has the sun failed to rise. And as unfailing as the earth moves around the sun, is God’s promise to show up in our midst.
And like the sunrise, God’s incarnation happens without our help, and whether or not we pay attention to it. What’s important about waking up early and watching the sun rise for you is really how the sunrise changes you.
That’s what we’re doing here tonight, really. Our gathering here on Christmas Eve is our annual ritual, our stubborn conviction to gather and to remember what is most true about the cosmos. We remember that what creates and orders the cosmos is none other than the very word of God, the same Word that was not content to remain far-off from the world it created, but chose to come and make its home here, in time and space, with us.
Here we come together on a night when we could be alone, a sign that the life that God promises is one of abundance and interconnectedness. Here we light candles, a sign of Christ’s presence in our midst even though our our spirits more often feel like a fragile flicker. Here we proclaim the birth of Immanuel, God with us.