It is no accident that Christmas is set following the darkest day of the year. We clocked less than 8½ hours of daylight on Wednesday. We’ve only gained 30 seconds since then, but that will start to speed up as we fly toward June 21st and the summer solstice when we will have almost twice as much daylight—some 16 hours in total.
There’s nothing quite like darkness to make us long for the light. And we’ve known something of darkness this year, haven’t we? There’s been quite a bit of chatter about saying good riddance to 2016 and all that its brought us, about moving ahead, about brighter days, but the changing climate and the political climate threaten future floods and much danger. What do we have to look forward to, we wonder.
Syria plays prominently in tonight’s reading, just as it does in the news you and I read this week. And it doesn’t seem to have gotten any better. Desperate messages for help have been coming out of that region for millennia now, whether by scroll, by story, or by tweet. Families are being forced to make journeys today to places where there will be no room for them, just as they were then when Joseph and Mary and that baby due at any moment made their perilous trip.
We would be forgiven for wondering who is, in reality, in charge. Augustus imposes a registration. Today’s Muslims and Mexicans may understand the threat this represents more than many of us. He’s making a list and checking it twice, but we don’t expect many gifts under the tree. We all know something of what it is to be captive to the mechanisms of power—to the registers that are used for taxation and military drafts. If power knows anything, it knows how to take.
We know the right answer is God, but sometimes it sure feels like Quirinius and Augustus are in charge. And much of the time it feels like there are too many holy families making the journey from one destruction to another tragedy.
The great Czech leader and playwright Vaclav Havel said “hope is a condition of the soul, not a response to circumstances.” But even that feels a little like cold comfort in the dark.
Then we look to the stars. They are unusually bright, aren’t they, when it is darkest? There’s something about standing out beneath them that restores in us a sense of how we belong to this vast creation that our remarkable little minds long to fathom. There’s something about this expanding universe that draws our hearts to a love beyond measure.
Perhaps these simple shepherd boys—and I do mean boys—were able to hear the music because they lived with the stars as their ceiling. Perhaps this young girl Mary—and I do mean girl—could make the journey because a new creation was being born in her.
There is something profoundly beautiful to me about the idea that this story of stories comes first to a group of people our lives tend to bracket out. The poor and disregarded. The young, the weak, and the powerless. What do you suppose God is up to here?
It has always been the case that the rulers and principalities of the world can control where we go and when. They can impact our lives for better and worse. This is not news, nor does this story pretend otherwise. But they can never bracket out God’s coming to meet us wherever we are. Jesus will be born to those for whom the world has no room, to those who have been forced to journey far from home, to those who fear what is coming next and are carrying heavy burdens.
Augustus and Quirinius and their successors will always have power. This is as certain as the stars in the sky and the flight of the planets whether we can see them or not. But they will never be able to stop the divine from entering the world. They will never be able to build a wall that keeps out the hope that lives in your soul and mine. They will never be able to stop love. The Prince of Peace will rule.
The wonder of this night is somehow best captured in what happens next. Mary and Joseph return home and to the uncertainty that rules it. The shepherds go back to work under the stars, as if nothing has changed. But everything has changed. Everything is different. Giving has outlasted taking. Love has come. Salvation is here. Good news of great joy for all the people. Amen.