Isaiah 7.10-16; Psalm 80; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18-25
+ In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I don’t know about you, but I always breathe a sigh of relief when we get to this time of the year when the winter solstice has passed. It means that the light will return, albeit slowly, and the days will gradually get longer as the nights get shorter.
One of my duties as curate is to unlock the church each day for morning prayer at 8am. In these winter months during those first few minutes before anyone else arrives, as I fumble around the almost pitch-black building for light switches, I usually find myself pondering the darkness – its power to conceal, to distort, to confuse. It’s not often that we are exposed to real darkness, especially here in the city, but Old St Paul’s at 7.45 on a winter morning comes pretty close!
As I carry a tray of lit candles around the church to replace the ones that had gone out the night before, the words from the prelude to John’s gospel often come to mind, the words we will hear read in just a few days: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’
When light pierces the darkness, like a flickering candle in a dark church, the dark doesn’t disappear. We might be able to see better what is directly in front of us, but the shadows are still there, and in the light of the flame, they can seem darker, deeper than before.
As with the promise of the returning sun at the solstice, the coming of Christmas promises the return of the Christ-light. And in our discomfort with the dark, our impatience at the end of our Advent wait, it might be tempting to try to rush through this last Sunday before we celebrate the birth of our Messiah. But I want to invite you to pause, wait, sit in the darkness just a while longer.
It is striking how many of the crucial events in the gospel stories take place in the midst of darkness:
- Before he is born, Jesus grows in the darkness of Mary’s womb.
- The angel appears to the shepherds at night to announce his birth and the wise men follow the star in the night sky.
- Joseph escapes with Mary and Jesus through the dark to Egypt after he hears of Herod’s threats.
- The day is coming to an end during the feeding of the 5000, and it is night when Jesus walks on water.
- And, of course, the final acts of Jesus’ life: the last supper, his anguished pleas in the garden of Gethsemane, the kiss of betrayal, Peter’s denial all take place under cover of darkness.
- Darkness covers the earth when Jesus hangs on the cross.
- Darkness hides the mystery at the tomb on the third day.
- And it is in darkness that Jesus later appears to his disciples: to Mary in the garden, to his disciples at the evening meal at Emmaus, in the locked room, on the shore before dawn.
It might be strange – at this point in the liturgical year – to be reflecting on the entirety of Jesus’ life, but I think it helps put today’s readings both into context and into perspective.
At the start of Matthew’s gospel, the angel comes to Joseph in a dream. ‘Do not be afraid,’ he says (as so many angels say). ‘The child Mary bears is of the Holy Spirit and shall be called Emmanuel, “God is with us”.’
We, like the psalmist, may well be crying out at this time of year – and at other dark moments – for the light: ‘O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved’. And if the gospel is to be good news at all, if the birth of Christ is to mean anything for us and for our lives and for our world, if the life of Christ is to bear any significance, we must consider what it means for God to be with us.
Today we lit the fourth candle on the Advent wreath for love. The gospel stories show – as in the examples above – that God will not descend to earth and make everything good and perfect. God will not come down and tidy up the messes we have made. God will not drop down from heaven to fix all that is broken in the world. What God – what love incarnate – will do, what God does do, is walk directly into the darkest darkness that we and the world have to offer. And it is out of that darkest darkness that the light of new life will shine.
In these last days of Advent, in all our days which are poignant with darkness, thick with shadows, we long for the light to come.
Soon. Soon it will be here. Soon we we gather together here once more, this church again darkened by night. One by one we, the body of Christ, will light our candles, sharing the light of the Christ-child with one another, the flickering flames piercing the dark air, bringing even the darkest shadows to life.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
O come, O come Emmanuel.