Merry Christmas to all of you, again; I am happy to see you only a few days after having marvelled together at the great mystery of the Incarnation. Every year I notice that as the holiday festivities reach the highest point and begin to wind down, we ask ourselves... what this was all about? A few years ago, as I was on my way to the church to preach on Christmas Eve, I even heard a radio host pondering out loud, as he was reflecting on his own difficulty of entering a festive enough mood, “But there’s got to be something about the 25th though, isn’t there? We just have to focus on something positive...” This year especially, many of us struggle to find something sufficiently positive about the season.
After all, human nature is such that given the good fortune, we fall into consumerism, and given the bad fortune – into despair. And yet, to foster a suitably positive outlook for which we yearn, we don’t need to look any further than the opening chapter of John’s gospel. Right within its very first few lines, its author gives away that “something” which makes not only the holidays but life itself special and worthwhile, much more than a silver lining or a reason for the season.
This wonderfully crafted, hymn-like piece tells us that, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The symbol of light, of course, refers to God’s presence. It dominates the Gospel of St John, and occurs throughout the scriptures (e.g., in Malachi’s beautiful line, “the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings”). From such references, we derive the words of our Nicene Creed, with which we affirm our faith Sunday after Sunday: “Light of Light, very God of very God”.
Christianity is often criticised for making convenient choices regarding our feast dates to incorporate the gift-giving and merry-making already present in the culture. But, as the northern hemisphere repeatedly plunged itself into darkness of the bleak mid-winter, our ancestors had no choice but to look for metaphors of hope in the changes of nature that took place around them. In the absence of any agricultural activities to occupy their hands and minds, people had the time to reflect and associate the images of rest, quiet, and introspection with the winter season, and those of rebirth, renewal, and rejuvenation -- with the spring. The promise of the latter was, of course, indicated by the first few minutes of extra sunlight that appeared each day, in spite of the otherwise intensifying claims of winter on all life.
And so, Jesus’ birth became associated with the celebration of the winter solstice, his conception -- with the spring equinox, and his first appearance at the Jerusalem temple -- on the day that marks the half-way point between the two. Even Easter is often celebrated close to another “cross-quarter” day, which falls between the spring equinox and summer solstice. In other words, each of the key stages of the Christian narrative of God’s entrance into the human world became symbolized by the special points in the astronomical/agrarian calendar that marked significant increases in the duration of sunlight through the year, and as such, were already important to the agrarian people of the pre-Christian, Northern European world.
Some centuries later, Christians began to criticize the misplaced emphases and pagan roots of their winter celebrations. In the 1600s, Christmas was even banned altogether by the churches in England, Scotland and most parts of America, though by the time Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in the mid-1800s, it had returned to England, rather dampened in spirit as compared to that of the Tudor era. But it is to Dickens that we owe the revised, family-oriented, children-centered theme of our contemporary Christmas; and to the Anglo-Catholic movement of the same time period - the renewed interest in the traditional rituals and religious observances.
Many of these remain with us to this day, but of course, all are still subject to the “changes and chances of this fleeting world”, in the words of an old prayer. Yet, the darkness cannot overcome the light. It is in human nature to look beyond itself and to dispel its cold shadows by appealing to its better qualities, such as charity and generosity, and the impulse to help others that most people, even those disenchanted by Christmas, still feel strongly during this season. The Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is an expression of God's infinite love for us all - the mystical union of the created life with the uncreated spirit.
Much like the physical life on this earth is impossible without the sunlight, which creates warmth and sustains the plants that produce oxygen, without the spiritual dimension of our being, the capacity to love, to reason, and to worship would also be impossible. In the words of the gospel of John, without the light, the world would remain in darkness - that is, without God reaching out to us AND enabling our response, we would not be able to recognize our Creator. But, as we look out into the world, we “see only dimly” in the words of St Paul; we grasp wildly, and all too often miss the mark. And so, at times, the ever-swinging pendulum of our nature manifests itself in our excesses, and at other times -- in greed; sometimes, in revelry and consumerism, and at other times - in misplaced asceticism; sometimes in fantasy, or otherwise - in scepticism.
But God, the one who is ever present and all knowing, the one who created the universe, sustained it to this day, and will one day gather it all back onto himself, exists outside of time and space, and most definitely outside of our human conceptualizations. Yet, the scriptures also repeatedly speak to us of God “dwelling among us”. John’s Greek word to describe this is closer to “encamp”, and the Hebrew word that refers to the instances of God’s presence in the Old Testament is related to a “tent”. As we undertake our earthly wilderness journey towards God’s permanent abode in heaven, out of love for us, God chooses to take temporary dwellings in and among us to accompany us on this quest.
It is, in fact, our enduring faith in this presence - that “something positive”, “the silver lining” for which we long in all times and circumstances - that I consider to be the ultimate gift of Christmas; carefully preserved, and passed down to us, from generation to generation. Today, let us continue to celebrate Christmas, freely. Free from the excesses of our culture, but also of the scepticism and jadedness, or any other reservations that we may have. Let us pass this gift on to our children and friends, so that the light of truth, grace, and life never ceases to shine forth in this world.