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Darkness by Stephen Savage

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In the opening line of her Christmas Eve message this year, Rev. Nadia Bolz Webber calls the night Jesus was born, “the night Heaven touched earth.” What a beautiful visual, two universes, two realities coexisting in a moment, a place, a person… it is an image I feel compelled to steal, so I’m using today. Christmas Day has come and passed… even from so close a vantage point as a few days, in memory the whole celebration seems to have existed in a single flare of chaotic joy. Equally chaotic and joyful in my house, I think. Big days, important events, those things we want more than anything else, they tend to be like that, fast and bright, yet always there is the next day. A few years ago I stumbled upon Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Taking Down the Tree,” in it she has a way of naming this “day after” feeling, Id like to share it with you now…

“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcase increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.

That’s it, that’s the idea, darkness. Not in an evil way, not in a bad way even, not really, but in that way that things seem dark after you watch a sparkler burn on the fourth of July, or when you run into an unlit room from the brightness of a summer day. It may rob from my metaphor, but its also kind of like drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth, the sweetness is stolen from it, because of what came before, just like the brightness of today seems dimmer somehow because of that blessed moment we have just celebrated.

In some ways the birth of a first child is like this, now I am not claiming any knowledge of what giving birth is like, but in honor of Mary and Joseph it seems appropriate, and I can’t help thinking that the metaphor fits. I choose that first child because they literally change ones whole life, just by existing. They begin changing your life almost ten months before they are born. You go from hand wringing and pacing, to doing math, figuring budgets, and anticipating costs, to preparing a space for them, buying a crib, and a car seat, considering a larger apartment, and car.. and then suddenly they are real, not just a potential, or a likely, or even an eventual, but a real person, and in that moment, you become a different person too, but then comes the next day… and the bills are still do, and the car still needs an oil change, and you have to go back to work. Life continues, and into that place where anticipation, and exhilaration were, a familiar fatigue creeps in. Where Heaven is evident in that newborn baby, the reality of how far the world still has to go becomes clear once again in life…

I wonder if Mary and Joseph would know what I am talking about, if they would agree. In our reading this morning we catch up with them bringing Jesus to present him at the temple. One of what I can only assume are many memorable moments over the course of Jesus’ first 30ish years of life… The act is described as common practice, a cultural and a religious expectation or responsibility, in other words we are seeing a moment from everyday life, perhaps a special one for those involved, but regular life all the same. Heck it even cost them something, a pair of turtledoves, an interesting moment considering Jesus later relationship to the practice of sacrificial offerings.  Nevertheless, life continues, their world is not made new simply through their passive if awestruck observation of something new, though one could hardly call Mary’s role passive.

And yet it is… and they are not alone. There are two other individuals present for this moment from Jesus everyday childhood, Simeon, an elderly priest, and Anna, an aged widow. For each of them there is more than just a boy presented at the temple, in fact for each of them there is more than just a glimpse of God, for each of them there is a glimpse of promise, and potential, and a glimpse of the potential of humanity to act as God’s promise. In that boy, who both Simeon and Anna recognize as profound, the future is sure enough that they can lower their guard, stand down their vigil, and find comfort. In the same way Mary and joseph would surely have seen in their baby boy so much promise, even if only the promise any parent sees in their new baby, and maybe Jesus’ birth didn’t change their world, though I believe it did, maybe it didn’t make the world new in a literal sense, but it surely changed the way they understood it, I have to believe that, because that is what Jesus birth does for us today. And in that changed understanding, a literal change occurs. When one can see the potential, when one can imagine the possibility, when one can know the promise, then one can begin to create it in their world.

In these days following the big holiday celebration that is Christmas, when the singing, and the cheering, and the rejoicing seem to be more echo and memory than current reality, when the brightness is fading and the darkness is waiting in its absence, when it feels like heaven is pulling further away from earth, when we are packing up our decorations and Christmas albums, saying goodbye to visiting relatives, and taking down the tree, look to that baby that remains. In that baby was born the proof that human life can live out God’s love for the world, that in each of us, lies the potential to give comfort, oppose injustice, challenge antiquated systems. In that baby, in that long-anticipated child, not in the preparations we made for it, not in the songs we sang about it, not even in the stories we told, or the prayers we said, but in that baby is each of us. Just like the person who is irrevocably changed at the birth of their first child, their perspective altered, their priorities reset, we too are irrevocably changed at the birth of Jesus Christ. Born in you and me. Born in each of us is a point where heaven in its perfection contacts earth in it limitless potential, in us through Christ is a light to push back the darkness. Amen

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