Just like every Christmas, this years’ was preceded by the darkest day of the year, on December 21st.
But as I have reflected on this year, I must admit that it has not be difficult to identify darker days.
If I am truly honest, 2015 has been a year that often has seemed lost in darkness.
I open the news every morning, evening, and night, and am reminded that ours is a world marked by terror—abroad and at home, I am forced to reckon with the truth that this world that we inhabit looks nothing like a a fairy tale (at least, not the kind that Disney tells us).
Newspapers, radio, and television sets give me daily updates on the world of ISIS, chronicling tales of slavery, indiscriminate violence, and cruelty perpetrated on the poor, on women, on Christians and Yazidis, and on Muslims who do not conform to ISIS’ description of Islam.
Part of the consequence of this spectacle of violence is that we are inundated with images of refugees pouring out of these war-torn regions, in addition to many more that our news barely mentions. Millions of refugees from Burma, Myanmar, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and more have traveled by road and boat, have drowned in the sea, have shivered in the forests, have been beaten and turned back by border police, all to escape unsafe conditions at home. They have faced hell as they have struggled to make a new life for themselves.
And as they have struggled, as they have bled, as they have gone without heat, or clean water, or food, or a place to sleep, Western Nations have been consumed by fear–that this constant stream of refugees might bring with it other risks—they have asked themselves, will the hospitality of European and Western countries to legitimately persecuted people also open a door to terrorism?
Because this year also reminded us that we live in a world where terror is no longer confined to unstable countries. The internet has made it possible for those drawn to extreme ideologies to connect online, to build relationships, and to encourage violence far beyond international borders.
Incidents like Paris and San Bernardino reminded us that the very terrorism we fear from outside more often is already here, living within our own borders—that those who perpetrate acts of terror are often citizens themselves, drawn to dark and threatening ideologies.
But lest we would be tempted to believe that terrorism is synonymous with radical Islam, this year reminded us that terror is part of our country’s own culture and legacy.
This year we were forced once more to reckon with the reality that racism and the legacy of slavery still reaches long, venomous tentacles into the present, where communities of color are often disenfranchised politically, financially, and civically. We were reminded that many white communities in the United States still harbor irrational hatred against their brothers and sisters of color, and that some of them act on this hatred by terrorizing others. And so we mourned the deaths of our brothers and sisters in Charleston at the hands of a young man who believed that we are not all equal. If we were paying attention, we noticed that, in the wake of this violence, 8 black churches were burned to the ground.
And our society has been forced to grapple with a history of injustice against people of color which has resulted in endemic distrust of police and the justice system. Sandra Bland, Corey Williams, Freddie Gray, Laquan MacDonald, Tamir Rice—their lives and their deaths are a reminder that all is not light in this world. That not all of us experience the justice that we deserve. Not yet.
Now I keep hearing that there are glimmers of hope—the newspaper says that the economy is better, but many of us still don’t feel it in our pocketbooks. We are still feeling vulnerable, and many of us have experienced the realities of financial and economic insecurity.
To paraphrase a line from Game of Thrones—this year has oft seemed dark, and full of terrors.
So what, then, does it mean to proclaim that Christ is born in a world as dark as this? What does it mean to sing songs of praise to the light of the world, when it would seem that so much of the world still dwells in darkness?
In order to answer that question, we must remind ourselves of the world into which Christ was first born.
In the time of Christ, the land of Israel was a world marked by violence, military domination, and economic oppression. It was a world in which God’s people were an occupied people, living under the power and jurisdiction of Rome, a society rightly feared not only for its military might, but for its willingness to eliminate problems before they began. To be a Jew under Roman rule was to live your life in the knowledge that you were not free—you were not a citizen, you had no rights, and what little you had could be taken away if your voice or your religion started to sound too much like protest. It was a world in which kings could murder infants with impunity, behead prophets as a party gift, a world in which justice was something you read about in the Bible but rarely experienced for yourself.
But Rome wasn’t the only problem. Jewish society had issues of its own. For this was a world in which the sick, the poor, and the Other were shoved to the margins. It was a world in which lepers were left to fend for themselves, in which the poor were treated as expendable, in which the Gentiles were believed to be unworthy and unwelcomed in God’s kingdom. And women—they were little more than second-class citizens, suitable for marriage and childbearing, but rarely valued for other gifts.
A dark world, indeed.
And it is into this world that God shows up. The creator of the Milky Way takes on flesh, and nurses at his mother’s breast. The Divine Judge submits the daily indignities of incarnation. Our King and Lord stoops down and meets us as a poor, vulnerable, powerless child.
Could it be that the darkness of our world is precisely the kind of darkness into which Christ comes?
That perhaps the words of the Angel, “FEAR NOT,” are meant not just for the shepherds then, but for us now? Today?
What will we do with this incarnation? Will we pass it by? One more beautiful shop window in a world drenched in darkness? Or will we stop and wonder with the shepherds? Sing with the angels? Bow with the magi? Ponder with Mary? Will we resist the darkness, and cling to the light of the world? And will we dare to shout the good news to a world that sorely needs it?
May it be so, both now and forevermore. Amen.