Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Blue Christmas: Snow on Snow

Here is my sermon for our Blue Christmas Service. The text was Isaiah 9:1-6 and John 1:1-5, 10-14:

We, as a culture, have an obsession, or at least a seeming obsession, with having a white Christmas. The last report I saw said Albuquerque has a 4% chance of having a white Christmas, that is either having it snow, or having snow on the ground come Sunday.’ We have this obsession with a white Christmas even though it doesn’t match the reality for large parts of the world, including Bethlehem. Someone I went to seminary with was from the southern hemisphere and she said it wasn’t until she was a teenager that she understood why all the Christmas images had snow on them because of her Christmas took place in the middle of the summer, whereas we have Christmas in winter. But this idea of a white Christmas came around long before Bing Crosby’s immortal White Christmas was recorded. In fact, according to Ian Bradley, an expert on Victorian hymnody, he has said that In the Bleak Midwinter, which was written in 1872, “has probably done as much as anything to give generations of children the impression that the birth of Jesus took place in the snow.”  Although not as popular today, this hymn used to be one the Christmas standards, and to give some indication of that, the house where Gustav Holst, best known for writing the Planets, wrote the tune is known as Midwinter Cottage in honor of this connection.

For the season of Advent, we have been looking at the hymns of Advent and Christmas to see what they teach us about our faith and the meaning, and need for Christmas, and I thought that In the Bleak Midwinter was the appropriate song for this evening’s service.  There is something beautiful and magic about snow and the environment it creates. The author John Milton said of snow and Christmas, snow was nature covering herself with a veil to hide any ugliness from the Christ child. Snow covers everything and gives the world that soft edge while simultaneously absorbing noise to add the serenity and peacefulness that we associate with the Christmas season, or at least that we say we want in the Christmas season. But that beautiful image of snow is not what Christina Rosetti is talking about in this hymn. Instead she is talking about the ugliness and coldness of winter, the deadness, of frozen ground, and whipping winds and snow piling up snow on snow. This is not the winter wonderland that we like to sing of at this time of year. This is the bleak mid-winter, the end of February when winter has lost all its appeal, the snow is no longer beautiful, but a burden, when you are stuck up inside and you can’t wait for spring to arrive.  It feels like Bill Murray’s weather prediction from Groundhog Day about winter: “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you the rest of your life.” This is not “it’s the most wonderful time of the year,” this bleak midwinter is the dark night of the soul.

This is something that Rosetti herself knew something about. Afflicted by numerous diseases over her life, including angina, tuberculosis and nerve damage, she also contracted Graves’ disease, or hypothyroidism, which marred her physical appearance. Her biographer says that Rosetti’s writings are filled with a “recurrent imagery of frozen feeling and self-loathing.” Thus, when she speaks, and we sing about, frosty wind moaning through that bleak mid-winter, or the earth as hard as iron, and water like stone so that no refreshment can be found there, it’s not as much about the physical event, as it is about the inner events taking place in her life, perhaps taking place in our lives. This is like in the Chronicles of Narnia when it’s always winter, but Christmas never comes. It’s hard to be holly, jolly and merry, when all you feel is sorrow and pain, it’s hard to feel the joy of Christmas when all you see is the darkness of life, and darkness we most commonly talk about in the church during Holy Week, or the last week of Jesus’ life.

But that’s part of the problem in that we treat Christmas and Holy Week as if they are different things, two different holidays, two different realities, but they are not. They are inherently linked because Christmas leads directly to the cross, and the cross leads to the resurrection. Hope and redemption are not found in the bright of the day, hope and redemption are found in the darkest night of our lives, on a night, like tonight, the longest night of the year, when it seems as if the morning perhaps will never come. Easter comes out of the darkness of the tomb, and Christmas comes out of the darkness as well, the darkness of the season, the season of the year and the season of our lives, and it should remind us that that first Christmas was not as ideal as we imagine it either.

According to the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph have to leave their homes and go to a foreign town, where Mary has no direct relatives, and after walking 90 miles to get there, she gives birth to a baby, but rather than having a nice clean hospital room to relax in, with nurses to comfort and care for her, and a clean bassinet in which to lay the baby, instead she gives birth and then wraps the baby in strips of cloth and lays him in a manger, which is basically a feeding trough. These are less than ideal circumstances, and yet this is the event that we celebrate as Christmas. We don’t have Christmas because things are great, we have Christmas because, as Isaiah says, we live and walk in the land of darkness and so we need to have the light come and shatter that darkness, and that light comes in the person of Jesus, who comes to us as a baby born and laid in a manger. And he comes not to condemn the world, but to save it because God so loved the world that he sent a light into the world, a light into the darkness, a light into our darkness, and the darkness did not and cannot overcome that light.

Those who have walked in darkness have seen a light, on those who live in a land of darkness on them a light has shined. Even when it seems like the darkness will overcome us and swallow us whole, even when it feels like there is no light, even when it feels like hope is impossible, the light is there, God is there, Easter is there, Christ is there, Christmas is there, hope, peace, joy and love, the themes of Advent, are there. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he says “In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Who has hope for what is seen? We don’t need hope in the brightness, we don’t need hope in celebration, we need hope in the darkness, in the pain, in the sorrow, in the valley of the shadow of death and the dark night of the soul. That is when we need to know and feel God’s presence, that is when we need to know we are not alone, that God is present for us and that God’s hope is still there. That is when we need Christmas.

I don’t know what your pains are, what your sorrows are, what your darkness is, but here is what I do know: God’s light is there for you and for me. And here is what’s true about light is that it only takes a small amount of it to shatter the darkness and that light here is for you this evening. It’s present in God’s presence, it’s present in those who have come to be here this night to be present, it’s present in the lights we have lit, it’s present in this service in giving voice to our pains and sorrows, our loss and our hopes, and it’s present in a call for Christmas.

Christmas comes not out of lightness, it comes out of the darkness. Christmas comes not out of cries of joy, but of cries of pain. Christmas comes not from a place of happiness, but from a place of brokenness. We have Christmas because we need Christmas, we need light to overcome our darkness, we need to know that God is present, that we have not been lost, we have not been abandoned, that God loves us and cares for what happens to us, and that’s what Christmas does. Christmas tells us about the love of God. While our culture has made it all about the celebration and cheer, that misses the true importance and meaning of Christmas. Christmas is the fulfillment of the promise God made through the prophets that we are not alone, that God is present, that God cares, that while we live in darkness, the darkness cannot overcome us, it cannot win, because the light is there. And so, on this night, the longest night of the year, we hear God’s words of hope, we light candles into our darkness, and we know that the darkness will begin a retreat, that every day forward the day will get a little longer and the darkness will get a little shorter because ultimately God wins, because Christ came and Christ continues to come in light, and the darkness cannot overcome it. So, in the midst of this bleak midwinter, lift up your concerns to God and prepare yourself once again to welcome the light into your life. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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