Tonight is the winter solstice, or the longest night of the year. For many churches it has become a night for a prayer service where the hard times and emotions of Christmas are acknowledged, named and given to God as we move toward shorter days and more light in the world and in the coming of Christ in the season. I led one of these services tonight. below is much of the order of service and my sermon. I hope it can help those who read it in seeing and naming and dwelling with their struggles in this time in a way that can find glimmers of light and hope. The liturgy is taken from or adapted from a book called Candles and Conifers from the Iona community or from the PCUSA Book of Common Worship.
Longest Night Meditation
November 21, 2016 7:00 pm
The shining of a star
Welcome to worship tonight, The Longest Night of the year. This is a night that has been noted or celebrated in many cultures, religions and contexts as a holy or significant time. It is a time of transition, an in between time, a moment for pause or celebration. In the life of First Norman it is the night this year that we hear about the star over Bethlehem. And the anxiety of Herod and Jerusalem.
The star of Christmas has always been enigmatic to me. Is it literally a star that appeared? Is it a way of talking about the astrology based predictions of the sages from the east? Does it appear and then disappear in the story or do we just no hear about it for a while? Is it a star for these eastern sages because they would not have understood an angel and needed a star instead, when everyone else got wings and glory? Whatever its purpose and place in the story it is important. It brings the final visitors to see Jesus weeks or months after his birth. It is a sign, bright and shining like neon, that God has come.
But it is not a welcome sight to everyone. These Wise Men from far away travel a long distance to see what and who it foretells and along the way they stop in Jerusalem. This makes some sense as they are looking for the king of the Jews, and unless they are exiled or occupied the People of Israel’s king has always been in Jerusalem, and in this time with Rome in power a regional king or puppet leader is in place in Herod. So they ask the king there, Herod, where the new born baby king is. So Herod calls his counselors to tell him what these men are talking about and they explain that these men are saying that the prophecy from Micah has come true.
And Herod loses his mind. But he’s sneaky so he and sends them on their way asking for a return trip and news of what they find. Which he doesn’t get, when the Spirit warns the Wise Men not to go back to him, so eventually when he doesn't get what he wants, Herod murders all the male children to try and keep this usurping child King from taking his power. But the child is sent by God, so why he thinks that will work I don’t know, other than ego and a power trip.
So what the star foretells in the story of Jesus is both a neon sign of his coming, but also the first signs of just how hard Jesus’ life will be here on Earth. The wise men follow it with good intentions, but Herod and the leaders in Jerusalem take it as a warning, a threat to their power, and their actions following that are evil and deceptive.
Does this sound like stories of Christmas we know- Scrooges and the Grinch's, Virginia’s mother so sure the magic of Christmas doesn’t exist she doesn’t want her daughter to believe, and the whole family in Home Alone being nothing but unkind to one another- they start their stories in very un-Christmas moods, and if you think about it every Christmas movie, story and even many songs tell the story of someone who is struggling or downright unwilling or unable to hear the story of Christmas and find joy and love and peace and hope in it. It is a universal or we wouldn’t tell these stories of hurt hearts, lonely nights and unkind strangers if we didn’t all know these hard feelings to dwell even within ourselves.
Just as surely as the star hangs brightly over Bethlehem, we know that we are not ready for it- for its joy and wonder, for its love and hope, for its intrusion into our everyday stories of exhaustion and sadness and fear. We each know each year that it is too much for us. So we tell stories, from scripture and mass produced TV about how hard it is.
But, just as every Christmas story is a story of a broken person, so every Christmas story is a story of transformation, the original story is about the transformation of the world by God’s entry into it, and also the story of the necessary transformation of our human expectations about what God means for us, and who God is with us. I am sure Mary and Joseph were fearful new parents, the Shepherds continued to be poor and outcast when they returned to the fields with their sheep, and these wise men from the east went home basically unwelcomed or accepted in Jewish and Roman culture. The anxieties of all the members of the story of the first Christmas continue, the anxieties of our favorite Christmas curmudgeons also don’t just miraculously go away. No, the story transforms them not by ending fear, anxiety, loneliness and struggle, but by God’s entry into those spaces of hardship in the form of new people, experiences, and ways of seeing, and in the story of the first Christmas by the entry of Jesus into our lives.
The story of Christmas is the story of God joining in on all of what it means to be one of us. It did not mean the removal of pain and struggle, it meant solidarity in facing those feelings. So in this season as we acknowledge tonight that we struggle, all of us in some way, with finding joy, peace, hope, love and the magic of this season, even when the world screams at us that we should just be happy and joyful... we can tell a different story in return and acknowledge that God came so that we can say that we hurt, that we miss those we love, that we wish there were more relationships, or healthier relationships, that we had more time to spend, less work to do, more work to do, or more places to go.
And when we do say those things to God, and at our best to one another, those are the moments when Christmas really matters, when Christ’s presence in our midst becomes real and we can find new glimmers of hope and love, even if they still seem in short supply sometimes, we can find those spots of newness and cling to them in the dark nights and cold days when we struggle, because the baby was born not to perfect our world but to truly love it as it is, and to join us just as we are, even when that is not happy or joyful. I give thanks that the story of Christmas is big enough, the star shines bright enough, to hold us all wherever we are, and transforms us for the better. Amen.