Summary: Have you ever noticed how much darkness surrounds the Christmas story – how much happens in the dark?
An End to Darkness
Cascades Fellowship CRC, JX MI
December 14, 2008
Advent Series 2009
This may sound a little strange, but I have always associated darkness with Christmas – physical darkness, I mean. All my childhood memories of Christmas seem to have formed after the sun went down or before it came up. My family always got up early for Christmas morning – me and my brothers would normally wake up around four or five in the morning, roust Mom and Dad out of bed and tear into our presents with the wild abandon of puppies at play; wrapping paper went everywhere. By the time the sun came up, we’d normally eaten breakfast and settled in for a morning nap.
And we never went to Christmas day services – always Christmas Eve candlelight services; they usually started at 9 or 10 PM, good and dark. We typically went sledding at night, we looked at Christmas decorations at night, we did Christmas caroling at night. I’ll be honest with you, I cannot distinctly remember one Christmas in daylight – everything of any note seems to have happened in the dark.
Now, maybe my own experience has colored my view a bit, but in some ways I think that’s the way it is supposed to be – Christmas is supposed to be experienced under this blanket of darkness that is pierced through with the lights of the season. I mean, have you ever noticed how much darkness surrounds the Christmas story – how much happens in the dark? In Matthew, Joseph has three dreams, presumably as he is sleeping in the dark. The Magi follow a star to the Christ child, again, the presumption is that they arrive in darkness. The Gospel of Luke intimates that the birth of our Savior took place at night – while shepherds were standing guard over their flocks.
But it’s more than physical darkness that surrounds the Christmas story – the Jewish people were at a dark moment of history. The promise of the Maccabean revolt had dissolved from the Hasmonean Dynasty to the rule of Herod. Do you know that Herod killed some of his own children out of paranoia over the throne? He was a brutal and unstable man – as his slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem attest.
And on top of this, Rome ruled the known world, including Israel – permitting enough self-rule to promote compliance, but squashing any rebellion with swift and deadly action. More and more cultural lines were being blurred – Israel was losing its distinctiveness. The high priesthood had become corrupt, resulting in a precipitous decline in the spiritual health of the nation. Politically, culturally, and spiritually the people walked in great darkness with little or no hope of reprieve.
There is a palpable darkness to the Christmas story that we seem to lose in all the glitz, lights, and glamour of our modern celebrations of it. It begins with a birth announcement shaded by rumors of adultery, of infidelity. Then, a forced march to Bethlehem – no easy task for a young girl in her last trimester. A dark and musty stable only heightens the sense despair – it’s sort of like the Murphy’s Law police were busy with enforcing the law; like the whole universe suddenly turned against Mary, Joseph and the Messiah-in-waiting. I mean, hospitality was and is a big deal in Middle-Eastern culture, so “no room at the inn” just might have meant “you’re not welcome.” Whether that’s the case or not, Jesus is still born in a cattle stall. And who can forget the dark, foreboding words spoken by the old man Simeon to Mary, the mother of Jesus:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Mary must have thought she lived under a cloud of misfortune. Even the visit of the Magi was somewhat ambiguous as an event of happiness and light – the Magi had to sneak out of Bethlehem to avoid a confrontation with Herod. In their wake, disturbed by a dream Joseph packs up Mary and the family and flees to Egypt in the middle of the night.
You know, when you carefully read the story, you find that the bulk of it is fairly dark in nature – you have to really focus on the points of light to see them clearly. We have romanticized the story significantly – we have removed the fear, the blood, the tears. Can you imagine how terrified Mary and Joseph must have felt? Did they travel to Egypt under aliases to avoid detection until they were out of the reach of Herod?