Christmas Eve 2017: Darkness is not all dark…

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Isaiah 2-7
Luke 2:1-7
“Nativity” by Li-young Lee

“In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer,
One more song, then you go to sleep.

How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night’s darling?

Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,

this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,

just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,

each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.”


Darkness is not all dark,
the light not all radiant.

There are some moments that throb,
stuck like a heartbeat
in the gray tissue of the hippocampus
where memory is stored.

They are not always big moments either,
not always the ones
we think we should remember.
Sometimes they are moments
that linger beyond their significance.

Christmas Eve 1977.

It was the first time I knew
emotional pain could be physical.
It happened in an instant.
We finished singing a Christmas carol
before the sermon, just like tonight.
Nothing unusual.
The music stopped,
the lights were low,
aisle candles glimmering,
small spot light on the pulpit.
The preacher, a man of few and terse words always,
said it so simply.
The first words out of his mouth,
with utter ordinariness,
“Not every Christmas arrives on time.”

Then he told us
that our bishop had just died in a car accident.

I was struck by a fierce and immediate pain
on the lower right side of my back.
It was an intensely psychosomatic response
to grief, an emotion
with which I had little experience at that time.

That bishop, John P. Craine,
embodied everything I thought I knew
about the church I would spend my lifetime in.
I had just finished my first semester of seminary,
and John P. Craine was as much as anyone,
the reason I was on the path I was on.

It was Christmas Eve,
everything looked right – my family all there
in the pew,
red bows,
white candles,
same old faces in the choir,
same old families in their same old pews,
same old musty book scent
amidst the seasonal fragrance of pine boughs.
But the darkness suddenly enshrouded
all the twinkling beauty
that had just been there a minute ago.

The light is not always radiant.
But…darkness is not always dark.
Zoom ahead nearly a decade, to 1987.

Katy and I took the trip of a lifetime,
our lifetime anyway.
We went to Africa,
to Tanzania in East Africa.
We left as soon after Christmas as we could get away.

We planned the trip ourselves,
reading guidebooks
and making reservations at places –
all without the internet!
Imagine that, if you can.
It was a long and arduous process
and we left for parts unknown
with far less assurance
of who or what would greet us
than today, when it is possible to see live-cam
video footage of the places you will stay.

Anyway, the crescendo of our three-week trip
was to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Three nights up
and two nights down –
an extra night on the ascent
to acclimate to thin air.
We were warned there is no way to predict
how the altitude might affect us:
19,300 feet at the summit.
Astronaut, Neil Armstrong,
was overcome while the older man,
former President Jimmy Carter, did just fine.
I was close to being a chain-smoker and overweight,
Katy a svelte runner and former athlete.
Irony won the day.

At the final camp at 15,500 feet,
you bed down to sleep a few hours
before arising at midnight
to complete the trek to the top –
thus watching the sunrise over Africa.
We had two local guides,
David and Asir.
They woke us from our fitful sleep
only to discover that Katy’s heart was racing,
she was coughing, and struggling to breathe.

Grim-faced, David and Asir
warned that instead of climbing to the top
we needed to descend to a lower altitude immediately.
They attended to Katy
as I hurriedly collected our gear.
With David on one arm, and Asir on her other,
holding the only light among us –
a candle-powered lantern –
we began a return to the camp at 12,200 feet,
which had just taken the entire day for us to ascend.

“The dark is not dark to you,
the light and the dark to you are both alike,”
wrote the ancient poet of Psalm 139.
It has been a mantra of mine ever since.
The darkness is not always dark.

Down we trekked through the night,
Katy coughing but buoyed by two gentle spirits.
I was behind, left to keep up
at the border of a dim radiance
from the candle.
But I can tell you that the old phrase
is absolutely true: one small candle
is enough to enlighten the darkness.

Even more than that,
the darkness is not an enemy.
The darkness is an envelope of mystery
and wonder.

My eyes adjusted
and soon the canopy of heavenly brilliance
was a dome-light of magnificence.

Trusting the savvy of David and Asir,
who knew their way even in the dark,
the strange and elegant beauty of night
was like the loving voice of a grandmother.

Obviously we made it,
Katy is still here and subsequently,
the mother of four children.

But I tell you those stories as images of that paradox:
Darkness is not all dark,
and the light not all radiant.

“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.”

That is from Isaiah,
whose words were a light-trail of hope
across the darkness
for the 99.9%
of the population that was oppressed.
In prophecy and poems of hope after hope,
Isaiah gilded God’s insistence on justice and peace,
with signs of hope for the future.

Likewise, the humble ordinariness
of Li-young Lee’s imagined bedtime moment.

“In the dark, a child might ask, What is this world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house

Darkness is not dark to you,
the darkness and light to you are both alike.

Normally we use light and dark
as the dichotomy between good and bad,
and such binary metaphors
can diminish our perspective.

So many times we traverse the radiance of brightness
but see very little;
while in the darkness we may be afraid of,
we discover the presence of love –
the presence of a power
so much greater than ourselves.

The Christmas story is like that also.

We imagine the substance and resonance
will be found in glimmers of light
and sugarplum sweetness,
when in fact, the light resides in the shadowed
and mysterious darkness.

Luke’s one paragraph we just read,
is a spare description of what has become
an elaborate romanticized narrative.
He spent more time describing the birth
of John the Baptist and, later,
the activities of the shepherds that night,
than he did the manger scene.

Look at what we know from what he writes.

The arch of the story,
is a pall stretched over a quarter of the earth,
in which an emperor far, far way,
in what may seem like another galaxy from Galilee,
insists on the first century version of identity papers.
Everyone must have a photo I.D.
and be registered in the system, and taxed.
The unmarried pregnant woman and her boyfriend
had to travel one-hundred and eight miles on foot.
Even if Mary rode a donkey,
in her condition it would have taken five days.
At their destination, they slept in a cattle shed
and used an animal drinking trough
as the infant’s first crib.

That is what we know from that one, small paragraph
that has become a mammoth commercial holiday
upon which the largest retail economy in the world, ever, is dependent.

Here is what we also know from sources
outside the gospel narrative.

Infant mortality in those days, was 60%.
Think about that: 6 in 10 babies died.
It says later in the story,
an almost throw-away line,
that Mary “pondered all these things.”
We know that poverty does damage to pondering.

The brutality of poverty limits pondering,
which may be one of its cruelest dimensions.
Poverty urges concentration on the moment
more than fostering a wide-open wonderment.
Then, as now, poverty meant
meager food,
horrendous vulnerability to arbitrary violence,
and near constant uncertainty about the next day.

The poverty in which Joseph and Mary lived
was a life-defining deprivation
of food, shelter, clothing,
and basic human rights
on a scale that you and I can hardly imagine.

So all of that and more
fills the darkness surrounding the cattle shed,
where a baby that probably won’t make it
out of infancy, is born.

That is some dark, darkness.

Beyond any brief moment of pondering
that may have occurred,
Mary and Joseph were likely filled
with anxiety.
More than certainly they were
dirty and hungry,
and frantic about keeping their baby alive.

I am painting this dire scene
because we have otherwise turned it into
an astoundingly radiant night
replete with twinkling colored lights,
romantic notions of a cozy and miraculous evening
out under the stars.
Uh ah, didn’t happen like that,
nor does it ever.

But still, and even so,
such darkness does not condemn its denizens
to impotence and hopelessness.

Darkness is not all dark,
the light not all radiant.

Now look, I have no idea why this is true,
but I do know that it is true – and so do you.
Darkness is not all dark,
the light not all radiant.

If we go about our lives
fearing the darkness
and refusing to enter into it,
we will be diminished.
We will be impoverished
no matter how much stuff we have,
or how soft our nest.

I promise you,
when we refuse to enter the shadow
for fear of the dark,
we will be lesser, shriveled people.

What might have happened
had Katy and I resisted being led down
that massive mountain through the night?
Or conversely, what happens when
we refuse to turn off the lights,
never enter darkness;
refuse to acknowledge or confront
the grief and pain of our lives?
We grow brittle and fragile.

The light is not all radiant,
darkness not all dark.

This Christmas story we tell every year,
has wisdom waiting for us inside
if we are willing to enter the darkness of the tale
instead of begging for the angels to arrive.

This Christmas story
has wisdom and hope inside
if we will turn off the Christmas tree lights
and sit in its very darkest moments
and listen to the narrative.

It is not for me to tell you what you will hear,
but hear it you will, if you are willing to listen.

I invite us to enter into the shadow
of the Christmas story –
its very center where light does not shine –
and hear the anxious children
who suddenly are parents
with no social safety net,
no citizenship,
no savings account,
no presents under the tree, and
nothing but one another
and their community of family and friends
between them and an indifferent regime.

Sitting with them there, in that darkness,
is where we will see a great light.
Isaiah promises it:
the people who walk in their darkness
will see a great light
, he said.

That is what the Christmas story
is really about –
entering the darkness in confidence
that we will encounter and hear
the love of God waiting for us there.

May your Christmas be blessed,
and the love of family and friends
be near to your heart.