In this service, with so much beautiful music of darkness and light, there’s one that didn’t get included. Here are a few of these words anyway:
“To us, to all in sorrow and fear
In darkest night his coming shall be,
when all the world is despairing“
Though a line claiming that winter is “dark and cheerless” may be an overstatement—indeed, we are likely still to find plenty of cheer these days—nevertheless we probably relate strongly to words of sorrow, fear, and a desperate world.
The part about being in darkest night has been particularly on my mind for this service, because this has to seem peculiar. Most obviously, this isn’t when we’d usually be at church. Indeed, it’s the sort of schedule when most of us are not likely to be anywhere except at home, and maybe nestled in bed.
Those who are at work now tend to have the disparaged title of “3rd shift,” seeming to indicate it’s not a first choice, that they’re not first rate or first class. That’s not to say those roles aren’t extremely important, for the nurses caring ‘round the clock, and firefighters ready at a moment’s notice, and those maintaining systems or security of buildings. Yet that those are extraordinary roles highlights again that it is unusual to be here in the dark middle of the night.
Venturing homeward in a bit, it’s the hour we might expect the only others driving are heading home from the bar or are long-haul truckers still making their way ‘cross country.
The unusual fact, though, is that even our being out now is not as strange or scary as it had been. We’ve got well-lit roads and reliable vehicles. But looking back in history, night was not a time to be out and about. Thieves and marauders lurked to attack travelers under the cover of darkness. It’s unsurprising in our Christmas story that shepherds were the only ones to show up to welcome the newborn baby; either they were tough enough to fight off the unsavory characters, or they themselves were the unsavory characters, rugged, stinky and unsociable, probably a bit uncouth.
So here you are, gathered in the middle of the night, repeating the pattern of those sketchy characters, the unsavory shepherds. You’ve left comforts of warmth and enjoyment behind to wander through the darkness to be here at this service.
Which begs the question: why? Why stay up late? Why adjust schedules? Why put off other types of celebration? Why venture to be here?
I know some of you’d answer that it’s your tradition, this is what your family has done. You may find it beautiful, the quiet and peacefulness of night. Again, we know that the line about winter being “dark and cheerless” is wrong because we long for that iconic scene of the “moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow.” We enjoy the notion of the “o holy night” with brightly shining stars. Ken Koscik would say that we still have enough of our ancestral genes in us that we are drawn to gather around the warmth of fires, even of small candle flames.
But I suspect there’s another, true explanation for being here and being here now. That is hope. Because of sorrow and fear in a despairing world. We are people who get scared. Of things that go bump in the night, sure, but not afraid only of the dark as afraid in the dark. In quiet seclusion of sleepless nights is when our minds are troubled, when our thoughts fret through details. Those worries can almost be overwhelming because the night can be so isolating.
Quiet moments of reflection can also intimidate since there really is much too much wrong with our world and the existence that surrounds us. We stare into the void of not knowing what to do about bad news—about violence and conflicts, about those with whom we disagree and whose opinion threatens to overpower us, about the collapse of things we’ve held dear, about deaths in big planetary ways and also the deaths and losses and longings we confront in an emptier holiday, and even just the no-big-deal but still-accumulating frustrations. Those become terrifying things to hold onto.
But this here isn’t just for distraction, not just sweet lights and pretty songs to take our attention away from being bombarded by things we’d prefer to ignore. No, actually we come to church to face those things more directly, and to be met by the good news that confronts the worst and changes it, transforms us, that saves. Our songs and lights aren’t diversions but are how we face the darkness of despair. And on this night, we don’t abandon each other to lonely worry, but gather together, united to face our troubles as community, joined by hearts and hands.
We come out into the darkness—into the middle of the night—partly because we long to hear this message. We need the proclamation that a savior has come. Our hope is desperate, is tenacious, is so very fragile. Our hope is so fragile that we can even cling to this baby born tonight, devoting ourselves wholeheartedly in him. We’re so eager to receive good news that we’ll cradle this one in our arms and in our souls.
While we wouldn’t just say that life is dark and cheerless, that we are wholly fearsome and worried folk, still we should notice a detail in this story: the shepherds feared and trembled. When the angel showed up, they were sore afraid. Is it that the darkness hides our rough edges, that we’re not really ready for change from the devil we know? Does any bit of blessing or actual good news catch us off guard? Or did those shepherds stop being scared as soon as they heard the amazing message, “Do not be afraid.” Don’t fear the angel chorus. Don’t fear this news. Don’t fear anything at all anymore—Jesus is born.
We venture into the darkness quite possibly as a bunch of raggedy shepherds who are now ready for this message, eager to hear the news. We’d probably also feel like saying we’re here because we yearn not just to receive but to embody this for others. We want to share and to practice this peace that has come to earth. We are filled by the Holy Spirit, blessed to be the blessing, offering compassion and love. That is the kingdom task we’re brought to by this newborn king.
And we’re people of joy. Our songs ring out into the darkness and candles keep shining against it. Together we have the confidence that, in spite of all that is wrong or we wish would be different, for all the precarious moments of life seeming at risk and even when it’s too late, still we celebrate. Our lives and our world have been entrusted into the arms of a savior, a redeemer. Be not afraid; Jesus is born!