It’s impossible to know with certainty why the birth of Jesus came to be linked to the date we now celebrate it, December 25. Early Christians didn’t find it particularly important to celebrate at all. They focused instead on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The Gospels link those to the Jewish festival of Passover, in the spring. By the year 200, various writings suggested the date of Jesus’ birth to be January 2, March 25, April 18 or 19, May 20, November 17 or 20. (Elesha Coffman, “Why December 25?”. Christianitytoday.com. August 8, 2008).
Add in December and you’ve got half the months of the year.
The date of December 25 became more solid in the West in the fourth century, as the church increasingly took on the role of being the glue that held together the Roman world. December 25 had been the Roman date for the winter solstice, the longest night, shortest day, of the year, when the dwindling sunlight began to reclaim hours of the day.
In the fourth century the North African bishop Augustine said this in his Christmas sermon: “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.” (Augustine, Sermon 192).
Of course, had Augustine been a South African bishop, he would have needed to find a meaningful connection between Christ’s birth and the summer’s longest day, when the most light shines on the earth.
Regardless, for us in the Northern Hemisphere, the birth of Christ, and the season of Advent leading up to it, now correspond with the darkest days of the year.
We regularly associate darkness with the bad, and light with the good. It fills our language, and thus our imagination. Darkness is something from which to escape, a symbol of evil, or at minimum, something undesirable and incomplete.
This gets deeply problematic when attached to the racial history of our country, whiteness constructed as a form of dominance over blackness and brownness.
This Advent, and this sermon in particular, is an invitation into the darkness of the season. The darkness of rest. The darkness that provides a canopy for solitude and the richness of the inner lfe. The darkness in which our brains consolidate the events of the day and make new pathways, the foundation of creativity. The darkness of the womb, Mary’s womb, which births Christ. The womb of the Divine Mother, who births new worlds into being. The darkness which wraps the light in its embrace.
Hear now several brief reflections, paired with music, scripture, and verses from the song “Joyful is the dark,” HWB 233. Settle in. Allow yourself to enter the darkness that is God’s gift to us.
Violin: Joyful is the dark
Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 1
Joyful is the dark, holy hidden God, rolling cloud of night beyond all naming, majesty in darkness, energy of love, Word in flesh, the mystery proclaiming.
Reading: John 1:1-5, 14
Reflection: “Dark Advent” poem
“Dark Advent,” by Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina.
First, there’s one word in this poem that needs a brief explanation. It’s the word tehom. It’s a Hebrew word that appears in Genesis chapter one. It refers to the deep, the watery abyss out of which creation emerges.
Genesis 1:1-2 says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of tehom, the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
In the beginning was the end
and in the end, silence
and the silence is God.
She was and is God,
all of life born through her.
She flashes rays of darkness
and the whiteness does not overcome her
because in her is life
and her life is flesh
In the dark
her eyes flicker tehom
and her chest trembles mine
with the quiet of the most high.
We have seen her glory:
a raven’s black sheen,
Violin: Joyful is the dark
Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 2
Joyful is the dark, spirit of the deep, winging wildly o’er creation, silken sheen of midnight, plumage black and bright, swooping with the beauty of a raven.
Reading: Mark 13:24-27
Whenever, in the Gospels, Jesus quotes a passage from the Hebrew scriptures, my NRSV Study Bible gives the reference in the notes section. It’s a nice feature, a frequent reminder that Jesus’ speech is peppered with borrowed phrases. In Mark 13:24-25, when Jesus speaks those ominous words about sun, moon, and stars going dark, the powers in the heavens shaken up, the note section looks like a family reunion of Hebrew prophets: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Daniel, Zechariah, even the non-biblical book of 2 Esdras gets an honorable mention. And here’s why: When Jesus says these words, it’s not so much that he’s quoting any particular one of them. It’s that he’s piecing them together, evoking the entire apocalyptic stream of the prophetic tradition. Because if there’s one thing the prophets can agree on besides the importance of doing justice, it’s that the whole system that holds us in its grasp is teetering on the edge of collapse.
So begins the liturgical year in the church. So begins Advent.
“In the beginning was the end,” a collapse of everything.
Or, not everything. Just the things that appear to be most stable. The fixtures that order our days. The rhythms we set our clocks to. Like the moon, and the stars, the sun. The prophets forecast poetic darkness. Only after this collapse, after the darkness receives all the broken pieces of the day, only after this, will the Human One come and create anew.
For Mark’s original audience, the collapse of their world was the Jewish temple being destroyed by the Romans. It was part of the Roman strategy, shock and awe to put down the Jewish rebels trying to reclaim their homeland through guerilla style warfare.
The rebellion didn’t work. When the temple was destroyed, with it went the symbolic universe the structure had upheld. It was both a crisis of politics, and a crisis of meaning. The fixture that orders life is no more, the powers in the heavens are shaken, the sun goes dark. The cell phone battery goes dead and Siri’s voice fades. You have no map for this road. You’re driving blind.
Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 5
Joyful is the dark depth of love divine, roaring, looming thunder-cloud of glory, holy, haunting beauty, living, loving God. Hallelujah! Sing and tell the story!
Reading: Mark 13:28-37
Here’s the hardest thing: When the sun is darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars are falling from the heavens, and the great powers in the heavens and the earth are shaken – The hardest thing is to keep awake.
Not the kind of awake where you’re lying in bed, unable to sleep., restless because of everything. That kind of awake is easy, too easy. That kind of awake is exhausting.
The hardest thing is the kind of awake where you’re alert, paying attention, mindful. Awake like the Buddha. Awake like Christ. Awake, as in woke.
As it goes, apocalyptic moments, apocalyptic times, are not all that rare. We live through multiple apocalypses. The world we thought we knew collapses. The light we thought was guiding our way goes away, and we’re left in the dark.
After that mashup of the prophets, a dozen dark flavors of apocalypse, Jesus turns his disciples’ attention away from collapse and toward a tree. A fig tree. When all else fails, find a tree. Pay attention to the fig tree, Jesus says. When it’s winter you can’t see the life within it. You can’t observe the roots weaving through the dark soil, but watch. Watch for its branches to become tender. When they do, they’ll put out leaves, as if from nowhere, and you know summer is near.
The key, the hardest thing, is to keep awake in the dark.
Jesus goes on to name the watches of the night through which the disciples must keep awake. “Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep.”
These are the same watches of the night narrated in the following chapter, Mark 14, when Jesus gathers with his disciples for their last supper in the evening, and they go to Gethsemane at midnight, and Peter denies Jesus at the cockcrow, and the chief priests consult on Jesus’ fate at dawn.
In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus again asks the disciples to keep awake. It’s the hardest thing to do when your world is collapsing.
Sometimes it becomes too much, and we need companions to keep awake for us.
Vocals and Violin: Joyful is the dark, verse 4, verse 3
Joyful is the dark coolness of the tomb, waiting for the wonder of the morning. Never was that midnight touched by dread and gloom; darkness was the cradle of the dawning.
Joyful is the dark, shadowed stable floor; angles flicker, God of earth confessing, as with exultation Mary, giving birth, hails the infant cry of need and blessing.
Reading: Luke 1:46-48
In the beginning darkness hovered over the surface of tehom. This is the foundation of creativity and new life. The first Sunday of Advent speaks of the end of worlds, the tragedy of collapse, the possibility that the darkness that follows provides the shelter in which the new creation is born. Like a womb.
And so it’s Mary who serves as our chief guide through this season. Mary, the unsuspecting Palestinian Jewish teenage peasant girl. Mary, who said Yes to the divine messenger without fully knowing what she was committing to. Mary whose body becomes a temple, a sanctuary for God. Mary, within whom Christ is formed.
The outlines of this story will take on color in front of our eyes this season. You can take it home and add your own colors. There is a life growing within Mary. “In her is life /and her life is flesh / like midnight.”
There is a life growing within us. Like the fig tree. The darkness embraces us, like deep down soil around roots. Like silence. No one knows the day or the hour of this great birth. Stay awake in the dark.
Let’s hold silence for one minute, after which we’ll sing together all five verses of “Joyful is the dark.”
Congregational Song: Joyful is the dark, verses 1-5