“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” [Is. 9:2] Isaiah’s prophetic words set the stage for Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus.
If we paid close attention to our gospel reading, we may have noticed that Luke’s story does not begin with Mary & Joseph, nor the babe lying in a manger. It does not begin with shepherds watching their sheep, nor angels singing. Instead Luke places Jesus’ birth in the midst of the ruling powers of his time. Caesar Augustus, the great nephew of Julius Ceasar, is the leader of the Roman Empire. Quirinius, a Roman aristocrat, is governor of Syria.
What sets the story into motion is a decree for a census to be taken of all the territories Rome occupied. It’s an effort to keep track of and control the people who live in Israel. It speaks of a reality that Joseph and Mary’s people faced during the Roman occupation of their nation. Romans kept peace through intimidation and violence. They exploited the poor and vulnerable. They killed or jailed those who showed the slightest sign of rebellion.
This is the deep darkness Isaiah spoke of. It is a darkness the Israelites had experienced before: first, during their days as slaves in Egypt. Later during the Exile when Assyria and Babylon nearly wiped them off the face of the earth. How’s that for the beginning of the Christmas story?
In our rush to get to the stable we often miss this detail in Luke, but I think it’s an important one. It’s not something we write into children’s Christmas pageants (for obvious reasons). Yet this deep darkness sets the stage for everything that follows.
This deep darkness describes the way we sometimes experience life. The deep darkness of living in a world where violence and terror grab the headlines on a daily basis. The deep darkness of powers that take advantage of the poor and vulnerable. The deep darkness of losing loved ones, and disease, and depression, and addiction, and abuse.
This deep darkness is the reality of the world we live in. And if we let it get to us, it will wear us down. It will rob our hearts of the love, peace and joy that is often spoken of during the Christmas season. I suspect that some of you know this deep darkness very well. I have experienced some of it myself in 2017.
I think its important that we name it and acknowledge it. We don’t have to hide behind a fake smile or write in our Christmas letter to our friends that everything is going great and our family is perfect. Naming the deep darkness is important because, as I said earlier, it sets the stage for everything that follows.
The brilliance of Luke’s narrative is that in the midst of the deep darkness, where ruling powers seek to control, exploit and demean, God does something different! God says “It does not always have to be like this!”
And so Joseph and Mary, who was nine months pregnant at the time, (bless her heart) make the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It wasn’t easy. It definitely wasn’t convenient. But that’s the way ruling powers operate. They’re good at bossing other people around and telling them what to do.
One would think that Joseph & Mary would have a legitimate excuse not to participate in the census. But, there was no form to file, no agency to e-mail, no magistrate to whom they could plead their cause. So Mary hopped on a donkey and Joseph traveled on foot through the mountainous region between Nazareth and Bethlehem. The journey is roughly 80 miles, so we can only imagine how exhausted they were when they reached their destination.
Luke tells us that the situation went from bad to worse. Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem. I’m certain he thought they would stay with them. Mary also had kin, Zechariah and Elizabeth, in the hill country outside of Bethlehem. So I’m certain they thought they were good to go. But Luke says there was no room for them. Family had turned them away. All the inns in town had turned them away.
If we know the geography of Bethlehem, it’s likely that Jesus was born in a cave which people often used for stables. Jesus was placed in a manger, which is a feeding trough for animals.
So, while we say that it was a silent night, the deep darkness Joseph and Mary experienced got just a little bit darker due to the lack of hospitality they experienced from their family and the town of Bethlehem.
Have you ever been in their shoes? Have you ever been in that place where it felt like everyone was conspiring against you? We’ve made the story all pretty and sparkly because of the beautiful Christmas carols we sing each year. But make no mistake out it, Joseph and Mary were in a desperate situation. The government was an oppressive, controlling presence in their lives. Their family turned their backs on them. The citizens of Bethlehem had no sympathy for them whatsoever.
This is the deep darkness Isaiah spoke of. It is the reality of the situation. I think it’s brilliant on Luke’s part to begin the story in this way. Why? Because he is trying to tell us that in the midst of all the deep darkness we experience in life, God begins to move. God does something different and says “It does not always have to be like this!”
And so a baby is born, angels sing, and shepherds rejoice! Jesus becomes the light who shines in the land of deep darkness and the darkness does not defeat him! Sure, the darkness gave it a good try by prosecuting him like a common criminal and nailing him to a cross. But even death could not destroy his light.
This is why we gather together tonight. This is why we sing carols joyfully and bask in the glow of candlelight. We come here to be reminded that no matter what darkness we are facing on a personal or national level, Jesus is with us. We come here tonight to be reminded that the world can, indeed, be a different kind of place, because of the baby born in Bethlehem.
I know we think of ourselves citizens of the United States but we are citizens of Christ’s kingdom, first and foremost. Because of this we are people of hope, joy, peace, love and justice. We believe that miracle and wonder still happen in our world. We believe we’re supposed to love all of our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. We believe we are called to take care of the poor and afflicted, the sick and imprisoned. We are challenged to shine the light of Christ into a world that is often cruel and unfair.
So, Friends in Christ, it’s my prayer this Christmas Eve that the light of Christ may shine brightly into whatever deep darkness we are facing. May it fill us with hope, create peace in our hearts, heal our hurts, and surround us with love, this holy night and through all the days of the coming year. Amen.
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck