Having just returned to the Northeast from the Southwest, it’s not the change in temperature or weather that has been the most striking. It’s the change in the length of and the darkness of the night. In the Southwest, we lived significantly closer to the equator, and being in Arizona, we didn’t “do” daylight savings time. That meant that the days and nights tended to be more the same length all throughout the year. There were no long, long summer nights and there were no short, short winter days. But having arrived in Rhode Island this fall, I’ve noticed that the sun sets much much earlier than I’m used to, and if the day is overcast – which it frequently is – what passes for daylight at this time of year is more like an extended twilight. There have a been a few days this December that I’ve found myself doubting that the sun rose at all – perhaps it’s just spent the day sliding along the southern sky, dropping back below the horizon at some point in the mid-afternoon.
But we didn’t just live in Arizona, we lived in downtown Phoenix – which is, by it’s own accounting – the fourth largest city in the United States. Even after the sunset the sky hardly ever got dark. The desert night was lit with the orange glow of the city lights – and stayed lit through out the year. You could see the moon, but few, if any stars on a typical night.
That’s not at all what I’ve experienced here along the coast in Rhode Island. Sure you can see the lights of Providence to the North, but looking to the South, the sky is as dark as any I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s both glorious and somewhat disconcerting to me.
We are just now past the darkest part of the year. It’s possible, if you pay very close attention to such things, to see that the days are now growing very slightly longer. The sun (when you can see it) is rising a moment or two earlier and setting a few moments later. But only people who know to look for such things can tell that the light is returning – having spent the season of summer and fall fading from the sky. And I suppose, as we stand at the gateway to winter, it can be hard to imagine the long midsummer nights that we expect to return – even as they are.
There’s an old chestnut – it’s always darkest before the dawn. I’m not sure that the saying is literally true, but in terms of our feelings and emotions, I certainly have found it to be exactly so.
As I meditate about darkness and the long dark nights of New England, and I see a sort of parallel in what we all are experiencing in our common life together. This has not been an easy time for our community. We’ve endured a nor’easter and a “super-storm” within weeks of each other, we watched our state unemployment rate refuse to drop while other states begin to finally fall, we learned that we are near last in terms of many measures of what makes a region desirable – and we’re one of only two states in the country to lose population recently.
It’s been a tough time for our common life as citizens of these United States as well – we’ve been through a divisive election that doesn’t seem to have settled anything in particular – we’re still waiting for the national economic recovery we’ve been promised, and we’ve been shocked by mass shootings that seem to be happening at random month by month across this land. It seems we’re just finished mourning one group of victims when the news comes of another, even more horrific set of killings in another part of the country.
And that’s just what I see in the larger picture here in the state and the nation. The world-wide picture isn’t much better. And I’m guessing that most of you here tonight have had to endure any number of shocks and blows these past few years. It’s been a hard time. A time when the darkness seems deep and often impenetrable. A time when it can get harder and harder to believe in the miracle of the birth of God in our midst, or that the light has come into the world, and will come again. In times like these, for many in the diocese, perhaps for many of you in this congregation tonight, believing in the promise that “all manner of things will be well” is more an act of spiritual discipline than a joyful response to what we are witnessing unfolding before our eyes.
When faith becomes a discipline, a thing to be stubbornly lived out rather than a gracious and overwhelming gift, it’s hard to find joy. It’s hard to remember that we are people, who above all others, have reason to HOPE.
But this is not the first time the gathered people of God have found themselves in such a moment in our history. Nor, sadly, do I think it will be the last. In the dark times of Israel under Roman occupation, the tribes scattered around the Mediterranean basin lost hope that God would act decisively on their behalf. In the final days leading up to the miraculous and longed for coming of the world’s Messiah which we remember this night, there was just a faithful remnant who still believed, who still longed and who still were keeping watch in the night. It was just as Isaiah prophesied in the 10th and 11th chapters of that great collection of prophecies, and yet I doubt that the people of the time of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem imagined that they themselves were the people of those prophecies, or that they were the ones who were going to be witnesses to the fulfillment of the plan of salvation. And yet they were, and they did. God broke into their lives, into the life of the World that night and nothing has ever been the same for them, for us and for the World ever since.
Those faithful people, surprised by the events of that moment, were, most significantly in a spiritual sense, standing in long tradition of people who kept faith with God – that God had promised and that God’s promises were sure and trustworthy. They happened to be the ones who witnessed the fulfillment, but more fundamentally, they were part of the great host of people who had gone before and who have since come after, who have had the audacity to trust and believe against all reason that what God had done once in history, God would do again.
These faithful people, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, Simeon, and Anna the daughter of Phanuel – and those unnamed in St. Luke’s telling of the tale – like Ezra and Nehemiah, and Judas Maccabeaus, and those who come afterwards: St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Julian of Norwich, Fr. Pusey and more, and all those we each remember with gratitude in our own hearts; were people that trusted, who had faith, that the light would dawn again. The are, and were, the people who believing in the light, became lights of their own to their day and their time. They became the lights of the world that shone forth in the darkness and gave Hope to those who’s hope had failed.
I think of their unbroken march of faith, of their witness to their own peoples, of the way their lives serve as ornaments to the tree of family of God when I see a Christmas tree dressed in finery and beautiful decorations in every Christmastide. The many faceted glass decorations, the tinsel that sparkles as it catches the light, the lights themselves that illumine and call forth the inner beauty of the tree have all become, for me, pointers, signs and signals to the more glorious, and wild beauty, of march of the faithful sainted remnant of God’s people.
One of the great gifts of Anglican spirituality – of the Episcopal Church in our case – to this moment – is our peculiar focus on the Incarnation of God in Creation and the implications that event and process has on our spirituality. We have a grand tradition of delighting in finding deeper meaning in things, whether it is in the symbolism of furnishings of the altar, the physical gestures we make in our prayers or the common homely traditions of our holidays. And I believe I stand entirely within this earthy, homely tradition of spirituality based in the Incarnation as I invite you to see our seasonal observances through such a lens.
But the ornaments of the tree, of the season are more than just pointers to people who believed in the promise. They are also heralds to us, and to those who have eyes to see, of the fulfillment of that promise as it happened on a particular night so long ago. It’s their pointing to what has happened and what is yet to come that makes them so profoundly moving to me when I see them again each year – and seeing them as signs and symbols of the life of the faithful people of God arranged on our family tree – reminds me that I must never lose my hope in them, in our time, or in our God.
And going one step further, I remind myself of my, our own, particular calling to take our place among them. Because that is why we gather tonight. To join that merry throng – that witnessed once and again and again that Mary and Joseph are come to Bethlehem – and in the darkness of that night, of this night, the Child that we have longed for was born to us and to the world.
You and I are called to be signs of the promise ourselves – to be little lights to the world that in the long darkness of these nights struggles to continue to believe in the dawn. We must take our place in that long train of witness because, without such witness, there comes despair.
How important is it for us to be signs? More than we often recognize. Because in taking up our task, we can be the light that breaks into the deepest darkness of human experience. Do you remember the story of the Christmas Truce?
When women’s groups and the fifteenth Pope Benedict asked the French, British and German governments to observe a day of truce on Christmas in 1914, the leaders of the war effort refused. But the matter didn’t end there. While similar events apparently took place up and down the western lines that Christmas Eve in 1914, the first truce broke out in the lines near Ypres. German troops began to decorate their trenches as darkness fell that night. They lit candles along their trenches and on their make-shift Christmas trees. Inspired by the decorations they had placed, they began to sing Christmas carols. British troops, in the trenches on the other side of no-man’s land, began to sing English carols in response. Eventually, as the darkness deepened that night, a few soldiers ventured up out of the trenches and made their way toward their enemies. The combatants met in the middle, framed by the lights of Christmas with carols sounding in the night. They exchanged presents and it’s said even the odd soccer game was begun as dawn began to break.
Though the generals looked on with great alarm, throughout the rest of Christmas day the enemies remembered that they were in fact cousins, with many shared customs and beliefs. And when eventually ordered, at gunpoint by their own officers, back into their respective trenches to return to the deadly work of the battle of attrition, those men remembered that time-out-of-time that they had shared with their foes.
How extraordinary that events of that night, now remembered in movies, songs and countless books, began by starting to light candles against the dark. Those Christmas lights, those decorations, recalled warring peoples to their senses and for the brief time they were allowed, they honored humanities better angels.
A dear bishop of mine once charged me, as one of his priests, to remember that, in a day such as ours, it is enough for the Church to recall that we are to sing Christmas Carols in the darkness of a culture and community that seems to prefer to war with itself rather than to strive for the common good. I’ve never forgotten that charge. And on nights like this, in days such as these, I recognize the wisdom of this words.
And so, this Christmas Eve in 2012, as I stand here among you as your new bishop, I ask everyone of you here, whether you are a member of this church, a friend, or a seeker after truth, to go out from this place proclaiming Christmas with all your might. The light HAS come into the world. The world now, and forever will, shines with the glow of the Christ child, the angels who announced his birth, and the joy of his family.
Keep Christmas well these next twelve days. Proclaim the angel chorus as best you can with whatever voice and instrument God has given into your care.
Light your candles, trim your trees, lift your voices in song. Help this world remember what has happened, and what is yet to come. Help the children of Abraham to remember whose they are and their high and glorious calling. Help the world to see, in our joy, a promise of what might be.
We are called to be light for the world. We are called to be a sign of the light that has come and will come again. We are sent out into the world as heralds of the Hope that the Prince of Peace gives as the gift to celebrate his coming.
Do you remember earlier when I mentioned the days are growing brighter, but it’s very hard to notice unless you’re looking? That most people just know that the darkness has come and are not aware that the light is once again winning its yearly battle?
We are the people who have noticed the light coming back into the word. We gather in the darkness of this night to bear witness to the light. We are sent out to be the heralds of the dawn.
May God give you the will and the means to be angels bringing hope to all who seek the light in the darkness.