One of the oldest and most universal symbols of hope is a candle shining in darkness. How many of us have had the experience of being home at night during a storm, and suddenly there is a power outage. All the lights go off. We rush around looking in drawers and closets to find a flashlight or a candle. When we light it, the light of even one candle pierces the darkness. We know everything will be okay. One candle in a dark room restores hope. We know we are not lost. We will find our way again.
The central symbol of Advent, the Advent wreath, has its roots in this ancient symbol. Before Christianity the Germanic people would create wreaths decorated with candles during the dark and cold month of December. They lit the candles to remember that the sun would return.
In Scandinavian countries a wheel decorated with candles would be used as a symbol of the turning of the seasons. People would pray for the return of the sun. By the Middle Ages, Christians adopted the practice as a way of preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ, the light of God who comes into the world. The wagon wheel became an Advent wreath. (http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0132.html)
In the same way, the Longest Night Service has its roots in an ancient yearning for the return of the sun. In Celtic regions, during the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, greenery would be brought into the house, holy and ivy. Pine cones would were brought in as symbols of new birth. Yule logs would be prepared and burnt in fireplaces. All of this served as a source of celebration, and a reminder that the sun would return, the days would lengthen, spring would return. In Celtic worship, the Winter solstice became a night to remember that Jesus was born to bring light to all of us especially, in the darkest days and hardest of our experiences. (http://theoldbill.typepad.com/thebackroom/2006/02/celtic_worship_.html)
Today Christmas has come to mean so many different things. We decorate our churches, and more people come to church. We get together as family and friends. Families have their own traditions. We see relatives we have not seen all year, we give gifts to each other; perhaps we remember to give back a bit to people in need. We serve at a soup kitchen, or give food baskets etc.
We can get carried away. We spend a bit too much. We eat a bit too much. But I do think, even though we get carried away, and we can get a bit too materialistic, that it is good. It is good to have this time for celebration, for family for generosity. We hope that the day is a special one, even magical, especially for children.
But there is an important side of Christmas that we can easily forget, or leave behind. One that is deeper and perhaps even more important than all of that. One that is best symbolized by a candle shining in the darkness: in our yearning and need for God, God comes to meet us.
We often forget that the passages we read from the prophets during Advent and Christmas were first spoken to people during a period of great loss and devastation. It was a time of exile. Israel had come through a period of overwhelming violence. Jerusalem had been destroyed by its enemies. Its walls were torn down. The Temple burned. They were forced to live in exile in a foreign land.
It was when all hope was gone, that the prophets began to speak a different word:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them a light has shined…For the yoke of their burden, and the bar on their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor, you have broken…For a child has been born for us, a son given to us…and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” (Isa. 9:2-6)
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not grow weary…He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted, but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isa. 40:18-31)
These were words spoken to people in a time of desperation and need. They were spoken to people who were experiencing grief and loss. They were spoken to people who had lost all hope.
Then the prophets brought a different word: God had not abandoned them. God would be with them. God would strengthen them, carry them, redeem them, restore them. Precisely to those walking in darkness, in the most difficult time in their lives, God’s light would shine most brightly. It is in the darkest of nights that the stars shine most brightly.
Christians believe that what the prophets pointed to was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ. The symbol that best speaks to the meaning of his birth: this ancient symbol, a candle shining in the dark:
John 1:4: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
John 8:12: “Jesus said to them: I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
So it is that on the Winter solstice, the longest night of the year, we remember that He is our light, he is the light of the world. The darkness of night cannot and will not overcome his light.
And this light shines very clearly, and perhaps most brightly, for those who are walking through darkness, those who are feeling some loss, perhaps some grief.
A pastor, Rev. Bruce Epply, talks about the Christmas in which he experienced this most powerfully. I share his words with you:
Three years ago, I spent Christmas Day in Georgetown University Hospital’s chemotherapy ward. My only child was being treated for a rare form of cancer. On Christmas morning, we walked, father and son, the four blocks from his home to the hospital, carrying a fruit and pastry basket for the nurses who chose to work on Christmas Day. For six hours we sat together in the chemo ward, hoping for good news through modern chemistry, while my wife, mother-in-law, and daughter-in-law prepared a meal that my son could digest. There was celebration that Christmas in 2008, but it was tinged with anxiety and fear, and the realism that life can be difficult.
But, make no mistake, this is the world in which the Christ-child comes — the world of grieving spouses, homeless families, frightened immigrants; a world of care and uncertainty. This is precisely where “we need a little Christmas” — not false hope or a good-time God, but an all-season spirituality, grounded in a love that embraces the dark night & the joyful dawn. (http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Joy-and-Ambiguity-of-Christmas.html)
Christmas is a hard time of the year for many. We are surrounded by bright colors, carols, all the advertisements and Christmas specials in which everyone is happy and every problem is solved. Yet we feel the sadness of loss or grief. Recent or in the past. Everything around us can make it feel worse.
Tonight we take time to remember that Christ is born even, and especially for these times. His light is there for everyone. For each of us. No one is to be left out or left behind. Remember that his light shines in the darkness and the darkness, the sadness cannot overcome it.
May the peace of Christ reign in all of our hearts and homes this Christmas.