Somewhere, someone is whistling Joy to the World.
Somewhere, someone is humming We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
Somewhere, people are shopping for last minute gifts
while getting caught up in the giddiness of the hustle and bustle.
But tonight, we gather on the longest night of the year,
to sing quieter tunes
and sit in stillness.
Tonight, as ancient people have done for millennia,
we gather as the darkness threatens to overtake the light,
and we wonder: Will darkness overshadow everything?
Or will light come to renew us and cheer us?
We don’t wonder as the ancients did
if the sun will die and fail to return.
But we do, like them, gather in the darkness of this long night
to name our own darkness and fear and grief,
and to see the beauty of the light.
Maybe your loved one has died.
Maybe your family is a dysfunctional mess.
Maybe home for you is far away and you’re stuck here.
Maybe you just get blue at Christmas time,
or your struggle with depression is magnified.
When I was growing up,
my mother made a beautiful thing out of Christmas.
Plates of candies and cookies covered the dining room table.
Candlelight filled the house as we welcomed family and friends
on Christmas eve to visit and share a glass of something good,
nogged or not.
But then I would see something else in my mother:
A deep river of winter tears,
a sadness at this time of year,
a blue feeling that came over her at Christmas.
She could never quite put it into words.
It was part sentimental,
part grieving for family and friends who had died,
part longing for days when life wasn’t so hard,
part a sense that the beauty and gift of this life is fleeting,
and even as we enjoy it we feel it slipping away.
And apparently I inherited this joyful melancholy of my mother,
because few Christmases go by when I don’t
shed some tears for all those reasons and more.
It’s hard to feel such depth and weight and sadness and blues
in the time of year when the expectations are so high
and the demand for joyfulness is so great.
This season makes me think of the line
from David Sedaris’ Santa Land Diaries.
The department store elf talks about having to be so cheery
for 12 hours a day and says:
It make’s one’s mouth hurt
to speak with such forced merriment.
But we are here tonight
because the only road through the darkness into the light
the only way to go over the river and through the woods
to grandma’s house or where ever we need to be for Christmas
is through the honesty of tears and grief
and the whole complex of feelings we feel
because we are alive and we have depth
and we need to winter as much as we need to summer.
And we know that honesty about these feelings and this truth,
and not a mask of smiles and a façade of cheer,
is the only way to true, deep, profound joy.
Of course, why else was A Charlie Brown Christmas
so popular and beloved?
It shocked and touched people 50 years ago with its Christmas blues,
in a time when you just didn’t talk about such things.
Charles Schultz captured it perfectly in the longing of Charlie Brown,
and the chromatic jazz music of Vince Guaraldi.
The recent Saturday Night Live character, Jebediah Atkinson,
an 1860’s newspaper critic,
gave his harsh review of A Charlie Brown Christmas when he said:
I was hoping for joy and wonder.
Instead I got a 30 minute Zoloft commercial.
Well friends, we have the gift and authority of Scripture
on our side tonight, and not just Charles Schultz.
The good news of God comes to those in darkness
to those who are waiting with just a thread of hope to cling to
to those who have nearly given up,
to those who know the tears of things.
Listen to Isaiah’s profound word of good news:
2The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness —
on them light has shined.
And who does Jesus reach out to in his treasured words
when he says:
28Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.
29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
He is speaking to those whose burden in life is felt as heavy
and who bear a hard yoke and need relief.
And in John’s Gospel when it sums up the good news of Christ
it cannot do it without mentioning the darkness:
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
It is clear throughout Scripture that because God is compassion
God’s mercy is offered abundantly to those in darkness,
those in grief, the poor, the sick,
those who feel hopeless.
And the secret I want to share with you tonight
that I can’t share with everyone else on Christmas eve:
Those whose Christmas is blue,
those who can’t hold back the winter tears,
those who know darkness and grief and pain,
know the depth of the good news of God
in a way those who only sing fa la la la la cannot know.
You people, here tonight,
this dark night, this is when God’s light shines the brightest
because we come together in honesty of life’s struggle
and still see the light shine.
This is the whole reason that Christmas was placed on December 25 anyway.
It was timed to coincide with the solstice celebrations
when the darkness was at its apex
and the light was most needed,
and shone most beautifully.
And this light, we say with humble trust and quiet joy,
this light is Christ, God’s own self embedded in human life
so that human life could be lifted up to the divine life.
I’d like you to contemplate this preview of Christmas good news:
The mystery of the good news is the depth and length
and breadth of God’s mercy and compassion
for humanity and creation.
This mystery is summed up in the idea of incarnation –
enfleshment – embodiment.
It says that divine love and mercy
will not remain distant concepts for us to debate their meaning
and ponder their existence.
No, instead, God enacts divine love and mercy
in real human, flesh-and-blood living.
Jesus is the guarantor and gift of this embodiment.
Our lives are the experience of it by the Spirit’s power.
Hear this on the longest night:
Incarnation is God moving into our tears and our laughter,
our joy and our sorrow,
our fear and our courage,
our life and our death…
because only in the odd mixture
of these things of light and darkness
do we come to see the meaning of our lives
and the infinite greatness of God’s love and mercy.
So I want you to know:
It’s OK to be blue when everyone else is green and red.
It’s OK to be sad in the midst of excessive merriment.
But also: It’s OK to be joyful even when we grieve or feel sadness.
It’s OK to let yourself celebrate in hard times.
It’s OK to share moments of laughter
even when we know illness and grief.
Christ is with us in all of it as God’s own compassion.
This gathering and all gatherings of people in the church
is wrapped and swaddled
in the good news of God in Christ incarnate.
It is a mixture of tears of joy and tears of sorrow,
tears of laughter and tears of regret,
tears of grief and tears of new birth.
But when we gather together in such infinite love and mercy,
which is always a beautiful mystery beyond our comprehension,
all we have to offer God anyway
is all these blessed tears.