Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Christmas Day 2020
‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.’ These words from the Prophet Isaiah summarise Christmas Day; in fact, they could be said to encapsulate the entire meaning of Christianity and our parent faith, Judaism. Our faith does not say that darkness does not exist, or that we will not experience it. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus instead tell us that, as the Apostle John wrote, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. Today we celebrate the birth in human form of that light.
Both the prophecy from Isaiah and the Nativity Story from Luke begin in darkness. Isaiah is writing from the midst of war about a longed-for time of peace. He looks forward to a day when military violence and occupation will be no more, when the rod of his people’s oppressors will be broken, and the tramping warriors’ boots and blood-soaked garments will become fuel for the fires, a day when people will be able to live in endless peace. Luke begins his story with news of a census demanded by Caesar Augustus, the ruler of the known world, widely and falsely hailed as the son of God, the bringer of peace, the saviour of his people. The Peace of Rome, the Pax Romana, was used to justify the expansion of the Roman Empire; I mentioned a few weeks’ ago the lines that Tacitus gives the Scottish chieftain Calgacus: ‘To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire, and where they make a desert, they call it peace’. The Nativity according to Luke starts in the darkness of colonisation. An insignificant family is forced to travel far from their home and community to be counted, just when their first child is due to be born.
Obeying this demand of the government, a registration that will tell the Roman Empire which people were to be taxed and which were eligible to serve in its armies, Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem. There is no place for them in the caravanserai, the local public building that provided strangers to the city with somewhere to gather in safety. So instead Mary puts Jesus in a ‘manger’, a place where food is put for animals to eat, a convenient shelter for a new-born baby when there’s nothing else. Luke tells us that the Son of God was born on the margins of the town, as an outcast, to a couple far from family and home.
The good news of the arrival of this Son of God is then told to ordinary shepherds. In the Roman Empire poets and orators typically declared peace and prosperity at the birth of an heir to the Emperor, but here those declarations are made not by poets but by angels, not in a palace but out in the fields, to the poor and lowly.
This is Luke’s message. The peace that comes with the birth of Jesus is not the Pax Romana. It is real peace; the peace that comes from God and God’s love for humanity. It is born from a couple who are transients, temporarily homeless, making do with whatever shelter they can find. It is announced to shepherds, the lowest of all the labourers, out in their fields. It is a gift to all humanity, to everyone, but especially to the poor and the outcast. The one who will be celebrated throughout the entire world as the ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ first appears as one of the world’s lowly and despised. Today’s Psalm tells us to ‘sing to the Lord a new song’ and in the birth of Jesus we see the new thing that God is doing in a world that was just as dark and sad and dangerous as our own has been this past year.
‘Sing to the Lord a new song’. We have all had to do that. Last Christmas none of us could have imagined what 2020 would bring. This has been such an insane year that even at the end of it I still cannot quite believe that it happened. And although I experienced some of sadness of the Melbourne lockdown, I am very aware that I escaped the worst of it. I was able to do most of my work from home. I kept my job. No one I love died without me being able to say ‘good-bye’ to them. I was always locked down in pleasant places with parks within walking distance. Here in Melbourne, after a horror few months, we seem to have eliminated covid19 from the community and, despite the mask-wearing and QR codes, life feels almost normal.
For many people throughout the world 2020 has been and remains a year of darkness. Hospitals have been overwhelmed; medical staff have seen more people dying in a single shift than they would normally see in a week or a month. People have died isolated from their families; their families have been unable to sit and hold their hands in their final moments. There are Australians today who thought that they would be able to celebrate Christmas at home, or with their families, who because of the new Sydney cluster or the closing of airports to people from the UK are suddenly unable to celebrate as they planned. This Christmas I have been aware as never before of the implications of the story that Luke tells us. In his version of the Nativity Mary and Joseph must travel far from their family and community at a time when they would most want to be surrounded by them – when they are expecting their first-born. How many parents had to welcome a new baby in isolation this year? How many grandparents had to wait months to meet a new grandchild? And then Luke tells us about the people who were there for Mary and Joseph, utterly unexpectedly, the shepherds. How often this year have strangers cared for one another, when family and friends have been unable to be present? How often have medical staff paused to hold the hands of dying people when their family cannot be with them? This year we have all learned how to sing a new song and, amid the darkness of a pandemic, that new song has often been one of kindness and community found in unexpected places.
Christmas tells us that in Jesus God became one of us, entered our world, and lived a human life. It was a life that started and ended in weakness and humility: laid in a manger; executed on a cross. The God who loves us so much that God lived a human life and died a human death is the God who walks with us through our own human lives. This year, as we have had to learn to sing new songs, we can be sure that God has been singing them with us. Through this year of the darkness of the shadow of death, we can be comforted that even in our deepest darkness God comes to us with light. ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.’ This year has been a year of deep darkness, but the good news that Isaiah prophesied and that the angels told the shepherds is still good news of great joy for all the people, including us: ‘to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’.
Let those of us who can join the shepherds, and glorify and praise God for all we have heard and seen. But to those who are still living in deep darkness, I offer you this small light: the God who loves you is always with you. May you know that you are held in God’s loving embrace, today and always. Amen.