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Isaiah 60.1-7

Luke 2.1-20

More Light

Christmas Eve 2021

In the summer of 2015, Debbie and I and two other couples had the opportunity to sail a 42 foot catamaran on a bareboat charter for a week on the southern Aegean Sea. Some nights we spent in port, and others we anchored offshore.  One night we anchored off the unpopulated end of the island of Naxos under skies that had more stars than I had ever seen.   The six of us spent hours in the darkness, pointing out constellations we had learned about years ago, wondering about certain stars and planets, and following more than a few satellites as they coursed across the night sky.  I imagine some of you have had the same experience, staring into the dark skies absent any ambient light and marveling about the thousands of lights that pock the sky.  It was an experience I will always remember, and it brought with it a lesson I will never forget:  it is often when the skies are darkest that we can see the most light.  It is often when the skies are darkest that we can see the most light.  The darker the sky, the greater the starlight.

Three days ago we passed the winter solstice, the longest and darkest night of the year, though the full moon that shone through my windows that night might disagree with that.  In fact, as we’ve said before, that longest darkest day is one of the reasons we celebrate Christmas on December 25.  Long ago the church decided to hitch its celebration of the nativity to the star of Sol Invictus, the feast of the unconquered sun.  December 25 was the day when the ancients could begin to perceive the lengthening of the days following the winter solstice.  It is one of the reasons we focus on the increase of light at Christmas time:  the advent wreath that lights one additional candle every week in the leadup to Christmas, the lights in our windows and on our trees and the stars on our streets and the lighting of candles at the end of tonight’s service.  Tonight you and I celebrate the light that illuminates the darkest time of year.

And at this darkest time of year, it has seemed like a particularly dark year as well, hasn’t it?  At the dawn of 2021 we were so hopeful that we could put the darkness behind us, the darkness of a divisive election, the darkness of climate change, and the darkness of a pandemic.  But as the first day of January yielded to the sixth day, you and I saw the darkness decide to linger a while longer; a longer while than most of us imagined.   Wildfires and tornadoes and powerful storms have packed a potent punch across the country all year long.  And just as vaccination rates are rising and bringing a glimmer of hope for a return to pre-pandemic living, the light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be a freight train named omicron barreling straight toward us.  It looks as though the light’s going to take a little while longer to reach us.

In Monday’s New York Times, essayist Margaret Renkl wrote about the last words of German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  As Goethe lay on his deathbed and saw the final darkness approaching he cried out, “More light!  More light!”  Renkl adds, “After the year we’ve just endured, we recognize Goethe’s urgency.  Feeling the darkness descend, we beg for more light.”  And, as if on cue, here comes Christmas Eve, whose story and celebration are filled with brightness and holiness and light.  “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” Isaiah proclaims, “the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples, but the Lord will arise upon you, and God’s glory will appear over you.  Nations shall come to your light, and rulers to the brightness of your dawn.”  In the story of Jesus’ nativity we learn that ‘the glory of the Lord shone around” the shepherds in the field, and the magi were led to the manger by the brightness of the eastern star.  The birth of the savior is the light that comes once more into a dark world.

In his annual Christmas greeting, a former classmate of mine and now President of Princeton Theological Seminary Craig Barnes writes, “We have always believed Jesus Christ was born at night, when it was dark.  Darkness is what our newspapers mostly describe.  [Darkness] is what Covid-19 brought into the world...  Darkness is what lingers in our hearts after we have been hurt; it tempts us to despair.  And yet, it is easiest to see the light of salvation in the dark.  It is easiest to see the light of salvation in the dark.  May the light of Christ shine in your home this Christmas.”  Dr. Barnes’ greeting echoes the opening of the first letter of John, who wrote, “God is light, and in God [there] is no darkness at all.  If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we neither speak nor live in the truth; but if we walk in the light as Christ is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, are are cleansed of every sin.”

And so it remains true that it is often when the days are darkest that you and I can best see the light.  Even as a new variant of Covid 19 threatens to overcome a pandemic-weary world, we can celebrate Connecticut’s vaccination rate which sits squarely at 75%, with 87% of the state’s population having had at least a first shot.  This is a bright light that pierces the darkness of disease.  During the past year the town of Chester has come to grips with the fact that nearly 30% of our neighbors in Middlesex County live at unsustainable income levels, so last Spring a handful of citizens came together and established the Chester Food Pantry to ease the lives of folks who have to make the impossible choices between groceries or rent or health care.  This too is a bright light that illumines a side of life many of us don’t see, even in our own neighborhoods  And earlier this week scientists and researchers at MIT revealed that what once seemed a pipedream - creating nuclear fusion to generate clean energy - could well be less than a decade away, sending zero-emission electricity through the power grid within most of our lifetimes.  Nuclear fusion – you know, that same reaction that lights the stars in the sky.  When the light shines through the darkness, the Bible reminds us, the darkness cannot overcome it.

So once again on Christmas Eve you and I come to the light even in the darkness of evening.  We light the four candles of the Advent wreath, and just for good measure we light the fifth for the birth of Jesus.  We light the candles in our windows, the heart that continues to give thanks for the first responders and front-line workers in the face of the pandemic, we light the stars that welcome us into the church building, and soon we will each light our own candle and sing of that first silent, holy, dark bright night when Christ the Savior was born, and we will do it out in the front yard so that the light that shines in our hearts might illuminate our community as well.  And friends, I pray that when the service is over and we return to our homes and gather with our families, when our Christmas celebrations are over and we reenter our routines, that the light that still leads to Bethlehem and the savior continues to burn brightly within each of us and all of us, and that we carry that bright light into a waiting and watchful and hoping world.  Because it is not only true that when things are darkest we can best see the light, it is also true that when things are darkest, we can best be the light. 

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