Today is the Winter Solstice, which means that tonight is the longest night of the year. Christmas is a time when we talk quite a bit about light, but for many people, it’s one of the darkest times of the year. Here are some reflections from my friend Liz Madaris, one of the most faithful and thoughtful people I know.
Recently as I stood in line at a popular coffee shop waiting for my daily caffeine drip, I struck up a conversation with the woman waiting in front of me. We exchanged our observations about the busyness of the season and how the day ahead would include attempts to cross off numerous items on our holiday shopping lists. The line was long enough for me to inquire about her holiday plans, and the joy in her voice as she related long held family Christmas traditions fueled my own excitement as I, too, began to anticipate the time I would spend with my own family this year—especially since I will be celebrating Christmas for the first time with my four-month old daughter.
Later that day I spoke to a friend who had suffered a miscarriage last December. Though she has since experienced the joy of a new pregnancy, she continues to mourn as the reminders of her loss seem freshest during the winter months. The contrast between these two encounters reminded me that many people struggle to experience peace, joy, hope, and love this time of year due to varying circumstances. I thought of another friend who related that she had lost her father to cancer the day after Christmas 34 years ago. For her, this time of year evokes painful memories of losing a beloved parent—even three decades later. There are those who are experiencing the frailty of one’s human body, those who are battling terminal illness, and those who have suffered the unspeakable grief of losing a child. There are those who do not have a place to sleep and food to eat, and there are those whose family’s dynamic may prevent joyous celebration. There are those who suffer alone and those whose suffering we witness in pictures and video on the news and through social media. How can any of us turn our faces away from, most recently, the incomprehensible horror in Aleppo and the murder of innocent children? For many this Christmas season, the cold darkness of the winter nights is a reality, not only in the literal sense of frigid temperatures, but also due to the painful darkness of isolation, depression, worry, and fear.
Throughout the weeks leading up to Christmas, we take time in our worship to light candles and reflect upon the hope, peace, joy, and love offered to us through the coming of Jesus Christ into the world over 2000 years ago. During the birth narrative in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we read that, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.” Immanuel—meaning God with us.
God with us.
We reflect upon the love of a God who dwells with us—a God who took on human flesh in the form of Jesus. This very God who chose to walk among us 2000 years ago, continues to reside with us today. It is through the power of Jesus, that we are able to bear witness to the hope, joy, and peace of the kingdom of God. In fact, when Jesus traveled to Galilee to begin his ministry, he proclaimed, “The kingdom of God has come near!” “Good news” is translated in the New Testament from the Greek word Euangelion—which eventually became what we now know as the word Gospel. The Gospel—the Good News—is embodied in the person of Jesus. The Good News of Christmas is that Jesus was born so that God could dwell among us. We serve a God who is quite literally “with us” and with the coming of Christ we also experience the hope and nearness of God’s kingdom on earth—a kingdom of hope, joy, peace, and love. The story doesn’t end there though. The Good News is two fold. As followers of Jesus, we are called to be kingdom-bearers—agents of grace and mercy in the world. Because God is with us, we have been equipped to share the love of Christ in tangible ways that bear witness to the kingdom of God.
While we will sing “Joy to the World” over the next few days, there are many who wonder how to cling to joy. Let us remember those who grieve during this season and may we refrain from the offering up of empty platitudes. As we approach the longest night of the year this Wednesday, known as the winter solstice, there will be those for whom the longest night does not seem to end. Rather, the darkness and bitter cold will linger because the sting of grief does not simply fade as the night does with the sun’s rise. But while the end of the longest night does not promise an end to grief and sorrow, it does promise that the darkness of tomorrow’s night will be shorter and the light of day will surely increase—much like the hope and light we receive from Christ’s birth gives us the assurance that God is with us always.
It is likely that you too have experienced a form of grief around this time of year—the ending of a relationship, dreams that seem out of reach, an internal struggle that won’t allow reprieve—there are many more we could name. While the good news of Christmas is for all to embrace, it is perhaps most pertinent for those of us who grieve. Jesus did not enter into a world of blissful merry-making, but into a world of grief and chaos and injustice and death. Jesus entered into the world so that our darkness would be illumined by the light of the in-breaking kingdom of God—so that Jesus could be God with us.
Just as God is with us, we are called to dwell with and pray with those who mourn. We are called to let the suffering know they are not alone during the longest nights of the year. Let us acknowledge those who bear the pain of grief this season and whisper to them that God is with them—as are we. As a community of faith, we are called to bear witness to the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst today and tomorrow—during the longest night and each night thereafter. Though many may find it difficult to cling to joy this season, may we cling to the promise that God is indeed with us. May we be peacemakers and embodiments of Christ’s light to our neighbors—tonight, tomorrow, and always. Amen.