Christmas Eve & December 26: Who is with us…in the darkness

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I spent some time
trying to think of
another historical figure —
or even someone personally known to us —
whose birth story
has such a robust narrative
that it travels over time
and across history and borders
in good times and bad.
I couldn’t think of any.

There are some historical figures with stories,
some even miraculous stories.
But none of them do we gather around
every year —
at great expense,
with celebratory preparation,
and these days,
at some personal risk.

There are of course,
solid, unmiraculous, and explicable reasons
that this birth is what it is for us —
historical reasons,
sociological reasons,
economic reasons,
theological reasons,
personal and family reasons.
But there is yet something else.

There is something more.

This story,
this birth narrative,
is our story.
And I do not mean merely a Christian story.
It is the human story
writ large and profoundly
upon the pages of our lives.

It’s a story that happens in darkness.

No matter how safe and secure
our affluence allows us to feel,
we know we are vulnerable
to forces beyond our control.
We begin to know that as early as three
or four years old.
Somehow the existential truth
of irreverability
gets known very early for us humans.

This year, once again,
a microorganism invisible to the human eye,
is a threat to all of us.
Covid is not unique, merely
another agent of hazard stalking the world
we share with hundreds of billions of them.

A baby, his anguished mother and father,
huddled in darkness
surrounded by agents of harm —
human and otherwise — is us.

Now we do not explicitly recognize this
when we hear the Christmas story,
nor hover over it
as if a detail central to its plot.
But deep down
we recognize it
because we live it
over and over and over again.

What is with us in this darkness?
Who is with us in this darkness?
Who and what can we always count on
to be with us — to be present
no matter how this story unfolds?

We know, or intuit, or fear
the hazards that inhabit our darkness,
but who or what else
is present — to be
with us?

That is what matters to us,
what really matters.
Who is present with us?
Not to protect us — we understand
our vulnerability
and come to terms with it
But who is present with us?

In this story that we tell every year,
the Christmas story,
that presence is symbolized by light.
Whether it is the star
or brilliance of angels —
depending upon whether we are reading
Matthew or luke —
light is the metaphor for presence.

It points to that presence within us
that allows us to hold the darkness
when we cannot see our hand in front of our face
or know what is in the next moment.
Simple presence.
The power of simple presence
that turns out to be enough to hold the darkness.

My words are limited this year
to keep our time together briefer than usual —
because our vulnerability this year
is clearer than in most years.

So this is as far as I can go with you,
but it is far enough.
It is the whole story in brief.

We understand the darkness
we sojourn —
it is composed of our vulnerabilities.

The Christmas story
reminds us
of what we also know:
that there is a presence with us,
some say a power greater than ourselves,
that is with us
in every moment and in every darkness.
A simple presence
that travels with us
and turns out to be enormously powerful.
Powerful enough to staunch our fear
and pierce our anxiety
and calm our tremors
with something
we cannot quite name.

We know there are COVIDS
and Deltas and Omicrons
and lions and tigers and bears, oh my,
that make up a constellation of hazards
which darken the skies within us.
But we also know
there is a presence.
And even though we more often than not
want protection more than anything,
we also know,
can also feel,
that somehow
that simple presence is enough.

In this beautiful moment,
present to one another
and together
holding the darkness,

I wish you a blessed, healing,
and hope-filled Christmas.