I don’t know about you, but his Christmas, I am feeling quite somber. And, oh, how much I would like to pretend that, on this holy night, the world is alright; how much I would like to magically transport myself into one of those lovely scenes we find on so many Christmas cards: a tranquil manger that stands under palms that are gently swaying in the southern breeze; or a cozy cottage in the midst of a winter wonderland, with lights in its windows and smoke escaping the chimney. How wonderful it would be to escape the often dark realities of this world, and if only for one night.
But there is no escape, we can’t pretend. The world is not that tranquil, peaceful, cozy place. Just this past week, this reality hit close to home for us Germans, when the horrible attack on shoppers at a Christmas market in Berlin happened. And this was but one of the countless incidents of senseless violence fueled by ignorance and hatred this past year.
This is not the world we want to live in; this is not the world God envisions. A world where the innocent die and ignorance, greed and hatred often seem to rule. A world where so many people suffer. A world where we grieve. A world where we are afraid. A world where it may be hard for us to celebrate Christmas with unbridled joy.
But even though this holy night is not a night of pretense, not a night of escape, still something special happens: a child is born. A child is given to us. Whoever has witnessed a birth, or even seen a brand new baby, knows, what a miracle this is – the miracle of life, the miracle of birth. Human beings, and all creatures on earth for that matter, have stubbornly given birth to new life, even under the most horrendous circumstances. And as long as there is new life, there is hope; hope that carries us through all hardships.
Though many Christmas cards or story books may suggest that the birth of Jesus was a peaceful and almost romantic affair – it was not. Jesus Christ was born in a makeshift shelter, more or less on the road, among strangers. He was born into an environment that suffered under the occupation through a foreign power and political oppression. He was born into a society that longed for a Messiah to come into this world and to liberate his people – and give it peace. God is born into the dark realities of this world.
And those realities don’t change miraculously the moment Jesus is born. The Romans still are in charge. There is still rich and poor. Human suffering and strife continues. Jesus eventually has to suffer and die on the cross. The world still has a long way to go before peace and goodwill among all people are realized. Our somberness, which we maybe experience on this holy day, shows us, that there is a longing deep inside us: a longing for that, which is missing in our lives and in our world. A longing for something better as we still have to deal with the messes of this world, the messes of our lives – as we still experience this world as a less than perfect and often dark place.
But maybe it is this longing for something better which is at the heart of the Christmas miracle. Behind the babe in the manger is God’s longing to truly connect with all humankind, the longing for ‘God and sinners reconciled’, as we sing. Behind our celebration of Christmas is the longing for a better, more just, more loving, more sharing, more peaceful world. Where there is longing, we know there is the possibility of something better, and there is hope. And where there is hope, there is that light that shines in the darkness God’s light of love and justice and care, giving direction to all who walk in darkness.
And all our longing and all our hope becomes flesh in the child in the manger. And so we can rejoice – despite all the darkness in our world.
The head of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, who, by the way, just visited us here in the Bay Area this past September, had some powerful words after last week’s violence in Berlin. After expressing his condolences to the victims and their families, he says, ‘I want to be clear: We will not allow (our) confidence (and) our culture of shared humanity to be destroyed by these acts of brutality. We will not allow an atmosphere of fear, of hate, of distrust to spread in our country. We will not do violent criminals this favor. Perhaps we will listen particularly intently to the Christmas message in the next few days. It tells of a child in a manger, who as an adult – Jesus of Nazareth – dies on a cross as a victim of violence. And is raised from the dead. Violence does not have the last word. Life is triumphant. And that’s why we will sing our Christmas carols all the more heartily this year, perhaps defiantly as well. Our confidence will not be taken away. For we know that the light shines in the darkness – and the darkness will not overcome it.’
On this night, Christ is born for us and all the world.
(Light the candles on the Advent wreath and the Christ candle, on by one.) There is hope. There is love. There is peace. There is joy. They shine in the darkness and dispel it. May these special gifts of Christmas never be taken from us. And may God’s light shine forth through us, as we carry the message of peace and goodwill among people into the world. Amen