Sermon for December 24th

Welcome, one and all, to The Church of Our Saviour, on this magical and most holy Christmas Eve.  Christmas is always such a wonderful time of the year, as friends and family come from near and far to be together for the holiday.  And this year is no exception.  So, to each of you I say, “Welcome.  We are glad you’re here.”  Welcome… to those of you who are in town visiting friends or family, and for whom this may be your first, or perhaps occasional, visit to our congregation.  Welcome, as well… to those of you who are here 52 weeks out of the year, and couldn’t imagine being any other place tonight. And welcome… to those of you who were dragged here to church this evening screaming and kicking, by parents or children or friends… and are here only because you couldn’t figure out a graceful way to say “No.”  And finally, welcome… to those of you who may have stumbled in here tonight, not really knowing why you’re here or what you’re looking for… not really knowing what you need or want… not really sure what tonight is all about for you and your life. We are most especially blessed by your presence with us this evening.

It doesn’t happen very often that we come together here at the Church of Our Saviour to worship at night, after the sun goes down. There is something about leaving the safety and security of our well-lit homes and venturing out in the dark of night to go to church… something both exciting and at the same time a little unsettling. Over 50 years ago now, Simon and Garfunkel sang, “Hello darkness, my old friend.” But for most of us, darkness is not always embraced quite so kindly. You see, it is in the darkness where we feel least in control, where we don’t always know what’s going on around us, and where we sense that some kind of danger might be lurking just around the next corner.

There is a traditional Scottish prayer which some of you perhaps know by heart. In fact this short prayer was done as a piece of framed needlepoint which hung in our daughter’s bedroom when she was a child. It goes like this:

From ghoulies and ghosties,

and long-legged beasties,

and things that go bump in the night…

Good Lord, deliver us

Indeed, it is in the darkness of night when we feel most vulnerable. And it is into that same darkness where God intervened in a most dramatic and unexpected way in a stable in the Palestinian village of Bethlehem over 2000 years ago now. Into the darkness of that most holy night came a small ray of light, wrapped in swaddling bands, and lying in a manger.

This past week was a rather traumatic time here on the COS campus… not because anyone suffered any particular illness or accident (at least as far as I am aware), but rather because we lost a beloved part of our community nonetheless. Many of you have perhaps noticed out in the courtyard right behind you, outside Cleaver Hall, that a huge deodar tree 5 or 6 feet in circumference and at least 60 or 70 feet tall, which had stood in that place for as long as any of us can remember is no longer there. In counting the rings on the stump, it looks as though the tree, which was probably somewhere around 90 or 100 years old, finally succumbed to old age and California drought and had to be removed.

While its absence creates somewhat of a sense of loss, its removal has also changed the character of the patio as well. Especially in these days where sunlight is at a real premium, what had been a fairly dark and closed-in space suddenly feels brighter. For the first time in many years, the light has entered in, and the light has transformed that space.

Our experience with the deodar tree out on the patio reminds me so much of our own life experience as well. In our first lesson this evening, the prophet Isaiah wrote of a “people who have walked in darkness… those who lived in a land of deep darkness.” And for most of us here tonight, we know of that darkness… not just as an external experience after the sun goes down, but even more as an internal experience. Whether it has come as a result of a sudden and traumatic event in our lives, or whether it has snuck up on us unnoticed and ever so gradually, many of us have found ourselves in that place… in the words of Isaiah, in that “land of deep darkness.”

Today is the date of two different important anniversaries in the life of the church and of the world, both of which speak to us of the light coming into the darkness of our lives. It was exactly 200 years ago tonight that a poem which had been written two years earlier was first set to music and performed in a village church on Christmas Even in 1818, in the small town of Oberndorf, Austria. Joseph Mohr’s words and Franz Gruber’s melody came together, and Silent Night was born. 

Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is… bright.

And then 50 years to the day later… 150 years ago tonight, an Episcopal priest living in Philadelphia named Philips Brooks, who had been inspired by a trip he had taken to the Holy Land, returned home to pen the words of another one of our most beloved Christmas carols. As he had looked out over the ancient hills of Palestine one evening, the image of a small village below him was burned into his memory. Once back home in Philadelphia, that vision was transformed into the words first sung on Christmas Eve in 1868 at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity… a carol which began:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

But for Brooks, the image was more than simply of a village where something life-changing had occurred over 18 centuries earlier.  For him, it was also an image of what God was still doing in the world.  And so, he went on to write:

O holy Child of Bethlehem descend on us, we pray

Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today

Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,

The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.

“O holy Child of Bethlehem… be born in us today.” In the words of the cartoon character, Linus Van Pelt, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Christmas is about believing that even in the midst of living in a land of deep darkness – perhaps especially in the midst of that deep darkness – the light comes. Christmas isn’t just what we remember tonight. Christmas is what we continue to live tonight. For as we receive that gift of light, we become that gift of light to those around us.

So be the bearer of those good tidings. Be the bearer of the light. For when you do so, the dark night will wake… the glory will break… and Christmas will come once more.