The Gift of a Dark Christmas
Luke 2:1-16 (NRSV)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
Six months from now I will be in Norway with my family. Each day will be filled with over 19 hours of direct sunlight, with over 3 hours of twilight each day. That will leave approximately 1 hour of darkness. The summer solstice in the nordic countries is a big celebration, typically referred to as Midsummer. In Sweden, friends and family gather on Midsummer to sing and dance around the maypole and drink a potent spirit called aquavit, while young women place seven wildflowers under their pillows at night in hopes that they will dream of their future husband. In Norway, huge bonfires are built and burnt in the twilight hours under the auspices of warding off evil witches.
Many of the countries where Midsummer is celebrated have roots in the Celts. The Celts were people from around 1,000BC to 1,000AD that extended from Ireland all the way into Turkey with a shared language, culture, and religion. The Celts were heavily influenced by nature, with their festivals drawing inspiration from and celebrating the natural world. As an agrarian economy and culture, they profoundly understood their dependance on the land, the sun, and the seasons. As you can imagine, having entire days filled with light would have been taken as a tremendous blessing worth celebrating and being thankful for.
In much the same way, the Celts had a unique way of understanding the days of December and January, filled as they were with upwards of 20 hours of darkness each day. For the Celts, the dark days of winter were also a gift. Those days were a time of slowing down and resting, much like the crops and animals for which they cared.
Often an oak tree (the most sacred symbol of the Celts) would be located in the center of each village. The tree, barren through the winter, would be decorated with produce leftover from the previous summer, namely oranges and apples strung from the branches of the oak. These decorations were hung as an offering to the sun, imploring it to shine once more. (Their limited astronomical knowledge meant they never knew with certainty that the hours of daylight would increase again).
Their major winter celebration, the winter solstice, was observed on December 24, which is three days after the actual date of the solstice. They waited three days because the third day after the winter solstice is the first time the sun can be observed to shine for longer than the day before. Three days after the solstice was the first time they knew for a fact that another summer was on its way.
As Christianity spread north from Asia and Africa, missionaries encountered the mythology of the Celts and noticed the profound truth and beauty of their culture. The Celts, primarily influenced by the sun, moon, stars and earth, had identified the truths that:
light is a blessing,
darkness is instructive and necessary,
hope can exist in darkness,
and sometimes you have to wait three days after the darkest night in order to see the rays of sunlight stretch out further across the earth.
Rather than destroying and replacing the culture of the Celts, the Christ-followers added to their story to it. When they saw the sacred tree in the center of the village they told the stories of the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden as well as the Tree of Life from the book of Revelation. When they learned of the winter solstice feast that came three days after the darkest night, they told the story of the Easter feast that came three days after Jesus was crucified. They were so inspired by this connection to the winter solstice that the Christian church moved its Christmas celebration to December 25.
The Celts and the Christians shared their stories and each were left profoundly impacted by them. However, today much of the influence of the Celts has been lost. We no longer have a deep connection to the land. We take the movement of the sun and planets for granted. Trees are removed from the center of our towns (and everywhere else, for that matter) in order to make room for new buildings of wood, concrete, and steel. Even the Christmas tree has gone from a symbol of thankfulness, with its decorations of last year’s harvest, to a symbol of consumerism, with the presents under the tree. And now our lives can be filled with artificial light 24/7/365. We have lost the intrinsic balance of light and dark both in our world and in our hearts.
Christmas done well and Christmas done right is a celebration of darkness. Yes, it is a celebration of light in the darkness; but it cannot only be that. Christmas cannot only be strings of lights and a future hope of God’s promised presence. Christmas is the celebration that God comes to us in the midst of the darkness, in the midst of our rest, in the midst of our despair and anxiety that maybe the darkness will overtake us. All this happens right now.
My friends, the darkness can be scary. I don’t think negatively of anyone who acknowledges that they are scared of the dark, whether literally or figuratively. But let’s not be so quick to fill the darkness with artificial light, for by doing so we can blind ourselves to the true source of light in our lives – the loving presence of God that is always present, even in the darkness.
The Christmas story, particularly as it is influenced by the mythology of the Celts, reminds us that the darkness is not the playground of monsters and boogeymen; but the darkness is the place where hope and grace are born.
As theologian and author Alexander Shaia reminds us,
“We know that every time we go into the deepest dark that the grace of the fresh radiance will come forth in us through our courage to walk into the dark. The deepest dark is not the place where grace goes to die but the deepest dark is the place where grace goes to be reborn.” *
There is a good chance that many of us here tonight are dedicating a lot of time and energy to avoiding the darkness within us. We know something is there, just under the surface, but we’re afraid to wade too deep into those dark waters, less we end up trapped there forever. Perhaps it is grief over a loss, disappointment with someone or something in your life, feelings of failure or inadequacy, or emotional or physical trauma that never quite healed. Despite the origin and nature of your darkness, it will ever and always be the place where God can come and be the light.
Fear not, I bring you good news of great joy, for to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Go with courage into the dark and there, in the darkness, expect to encounter the light of God, born anew – a light no darkness can overcome.
** “Alexander Shaia on the Mythic Power of Christmas” The Robcast, Dec. 10, 2017.