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"The Longest Night of the Year" -- Luke 2:8-19 (4th Sunday in Advent)



The following reflection was offered in conversation with the songs “The Longest Night of the Year” and "When Love Is Born," as sung during worship by Linda Price[1]. The preaching began with the first verse of "The Longest Night of the Year" –


The Longest Night of the Year” refers of course to the Winter Solstice – the moment, each year, when the Earth tilts furthest away from the Sun. As the shadows have lengthened, the Solstice brings the day of the year with the least light, and the most night.


For millennia, from the time that human beings first stood up, and walked this tiny planet, spinning on its axis, as it makes its way around the Sun, we have noticed the rhythm of things – as the days ebb and flow – as nights grow longer, and then shorter, and then longer again – as we move through what we’ve come to call seasons, living our days, as light fades, and then dawns again.


For millennia, across cultures, we have noticed this Longest Night of the Year – and we have marked it and honored it – honored the darkness, often with a celebration of light. For Scandinavian and Germanic peoples, they called it Yule. In Ireland, we find structures 5000 years old, built to capture the Solstice light. In China, there is the festival of Dongzhi. And beyond actual Solstice celebrations, other holy days have landed on or near the Longest Night in the Northern Hemisphere – Hannukah and Christmas – with traditions that include the lighting of candles.


Across cultures, and down through the generations, at this time of year, we honor the experience of long nights – with time to remember – with time to think of those things we often don’t say out loud – of life’s hurt and loss – the time when harvest is past, and new planting not yet here.


We honor the blessing of night – a time for rest, and shelter – like a seed planted deep in the dark loam of the earth – a time for nurture and replenishment.


And, even as we honor the long night, we look for the first glimmers of light, for Solstice also brings the promise that tomorrow the days will begin to lengthen – just a bit more light with each passing day. The Longest Night is a time to wait, and to take notice, and to hope.


For those who follow Christ, we call the Season Advent – as a weary world waits through long nights – for the coming of the light of Christ at Christmas. For the coming of Incarnation – God in our flesh – God in us. For the true light was coming into the world – For a people who have walked in darkness, upon them a great light has come.[2]


And in this morning’s Scripture, we join Mary -- in a long night – filled with perhaps more than she can take in – a night full of life – of struggle – and the pain of labor – and the joy –and the singing of angels – and random shepherds – in the shelter of a stable, far from home – we join Mary as she cradles her newborn son, the Christ, and ponders all these things in her heart, in a weary world, on what is, for her, perhaps the longest night of the year.


***

Music – “The Longest Night of the Year” (verse 2)

***


On the first Sunday of Advent I said that, for me, 2020 has felt like one long Advent – one long season of waiting, and weariness, and primal hope. 2020 has certainly come with its share of long nights.


This year, perhaps more than most, we are collectively more aware of the hurt in the world –

· families who right now ache as loved ones suffer with COVID,

· families who have lost loved ones,

· families who are anxious... waiting for test results... doing their/our best to navigate a world of peril,

· folks who feel even more isolated in this season of distancing,

· folks who are struggling with job loss and economic uncertainty,

· everyone who is figuring out day by day how to balance work, and home, and school,

· and all this, along with those in our midst who have long been vulnerable,

-those living outside,

-those in need of food, and shelter,

· everyone who every day has to weather oppressive structures and systems.


In this season of long nights, with plenty of time to notice and think, perhaps we’re more aware, and holding all this – even as we know that this year also has brought unanticipated, life-giving opportunities to serve, and to help, and to love. New challenges have forced us to create and re-create new ways of living life. And, so, we have continued to move through the fullness of life, living lives of meaning – as this year has also brought the blessings of births, and baptism, and healing, and love, and in some ways even deeper connection.


All this is true. All the stuff of life – right here, right now. In her Advent book, “A Weary World,” Kathy Escobar suggests we are living in a time of paradox – holding the full complexity of life – in our weary hands. The world is neither all darkness nor all light, and we need them both.[3]


Advent and Christmas come every year – and this year – reminding us that this is the world that Christ enters, again and again, all the time. Immanuel – God with us. This is the world that Christ inhabits right here, right now – with us, and in us.


In this morning’s Scripture, the angels announce “Christ the Lord” – love bigger than every power that seeks our harm – Good News that will set the whole world free. And. The sign – the sign is a newborn baby, lying in a feeding trough. With those shepherds, we travel through this longest night, to find Jesus, in the midst of us, in a manger, on a long night, in a weary world.


***

Music – “The Longest Night of the Year” (verse 3)

***


Though they’ve become familiar over the years, we really don’t know much about the folks in this morning’s Scripture. We don’t know much about the shepherds. They would have been outsiders. In a world of layered power, they would have been lowly. We can guess that they lived hand to mouth, as most folks did in those days. We don’t know anything about their families – the hurts and the worries that they carried through their long nights – a child with a fever, a family in need of food, parents to help and support. We only know that on that long night, they hear angels sing to a weary world, and they go to see – to see this thing that has happened – the Good News the angels have announced.


We don’t know much about the innkeeper. She’s not actually mentioned – just her message of no room in the inn. But we can wonder if she was the one who found them room out back in the stable. On this long night, she hears the knock on the door, just one more ragtag family showing up on her doorstep – with the noise of an overflowing inn behind her. She almost shoos them away, but then she sees Mary, great with child, who’s been traveling for miles – and maybe she knows – this innkeeper – maybe she knows something of what that might be like – and of what lies ahead for Mary on this long night – and maybe she finds room in the stable – maybe she midwifes Mary – “just one more push” – and helps bring Jesus into the world.


The person we know best in the story is Mary –a young Palestinian woman –

who finds out she is pregnant before she’s married –

who hears the news from a scary angel –

who knows what that means in her culture and her day –

and who says yes anyway –

and then sings of God’s liberating love breaking into the world in her body.


Full of truth and grace, and fear and trembling, and fierce courage, and strength, and perseverance, Mary in her weary world, on her longest night, births Christ into the world – in a messy stable, with random shepherds, and the distant song of angels.


And after that, when they all had gone – in the deep dark of night – as Joseph snores not too far off – that innkeeper, who has washed and wrapped the child in swaddling cloth – hands Mary her son, kisses Mary on the forehead, and then heads back into the inn.


Scripture says that Mary ponders all these things in her heart.

She’s too weary now, even to sleep, and so she counts the baby’s fingers and toes,

and rests her ear gently on his chest – and listens – and hears – both fragile and fierce – the heartbeat of God – pulsing in her child – in her flesh.


And Mary rocks and hums him to sleep, and watches out the open stable door –

for that first light of dawn – as the gray glow of twilight begins to reveal –a weary, complicated world – overflowing with the presence of God – light dawning on a weary world, more beautiful than she ever imagined.


Music -- "When Love Was Born"




Reflection © 2020 Scott Clark


[1] Both “The Longest Night of the Year” and “When Love Was Born” were performed and streamed live in worship, under FPCSA CCS License CCS license #12908 [2] John 1; Isaiah 2:9 [3] Escobar, A Weary World, at Kindle loc. 722.

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