So much of who we are begins in the dark. So many of our best stories in scripture, I mean. When God creates the heavens and the earth, the earth is a formless void, and darkness covers the face of the deep.
Jacob, son of Isaac, gets up in the middle of the night, and takes two wives, two maids, and eleven children and crosses the Jabbok. He sends them across the river, and while he is left alone, a mysterious man wrestles with him until daybreak.
Jonah learns his lesson in the belly of a whale, where the deep surrounds him, weeds wrapped around his head.
Jesus is born in the middle of the night. The time comes for Mary to deliver her child, and she gives birth to her firstborn son and warps him in bands of cloth and lays him in a manger. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
When the Magi go searching for the baby Jesus, they travel long after the sun had set, following the star they had seen at its rising, the star that would lead them to the newborn king.
This continues throughout Jesus' life. Nicodemus comes to him by night, hiding from the authorities but desperate to ask his questions. And when they crucify Jesus, they do so at 9 in the morning, but at noon, darkness comes over the whole land until three in the afternoon.
Even Easter begins in the dark. Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, the Gospel is careful to point out, Mary Magdalene encounters an empty tomb. Some of our most sacred stories begin with the darkness at hand.
My earliest Christmas stories begin this way, too - my brother and I, perched at the top of the staircase, gripping that beige carpet with our hands, waiting, as we did every year of our youth, waiting, for the sun to rise, at which point we were allowed to wake our parents so that Christmas could finally - finally - begin.
So of course, this Christmas story begins in the dark as well. Jesus is born, and all manner of people and animals come to see what all the fuss is about. Every baby deserves to be adored. Everything is as it ought to be, until Joseph falls asleep. In the midst of the night an angel warns the proud new papa to run away, to flee immediately, to save the life of his brand-new infant son. He wakes his family and in the middle of the night they escape to Egypt, the very picture of desperate refugees.
Dawn begins to break, but in this instance, the darkness only grows deeper. Herod had always been referred to as king until Matthew tells us all those visitors worshipped that new little baby. From that point forward, Herod is stripped of his title, and there is nothing like the fear of losing what power we have to make our shadow selves emerge. He orders all of the children in and around Bethlehem two years of age and younger killed.
And with that, the exuberant choruses of Joy to the World and Hark! the Herald, they fade away - they fade away so quickly that we struggle to remember not just the lyrics but even the melody.
Or so I thought. I remember talking with my friend, Mark, a music director, about this. I asked him what on earth we should sing when this story is preached. He thought for a moment, and then he said, "We should sing Christmas hymns. Because in this story - there is still joy to be found, and the angels still have plenty to sing about, because this story, just like all the rest, is about God drawing near to us, no matter what the circumstance."
What my friend was saying is, this isn't a poorly chosen, distasteful epilogue to the Christmas story - it is a central part of it.
This has been easier for me to believe in recent years, when the slaughter of innocents has not been limited to the pages of our Bibles. The truth is, it never has been.
But as I write this, we are mourning the deaths of eight-year-old Felipe, 16-year-old Carlos, and two-year-old – yes, two-year-old – Wilmer, who all had the flu when they died in the custody of U.S. immigration officials.
As I write this, we are still mourning the deaths of the 22 killed in the shooting in El Paso, Texas, including 15-year-old Javier Rodriguez, gunned down by a man who claimed personal weapons are necessary to “repel the immigrants.”
As I write this, we still haven't forgotten the year 2012, when, 11 days before Christmas, a 20-year-old walked into an elementary school and slaughtered 20 innocent children and six adult staff members. [Click here for story: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/nyregion/shooting-reported-at-connecticut-elementary-school.html]
And as I write this, there are countless other instances in which children - by which I mean the children of God - are hurting, or hungry, or homeless. There are endless other examples in which the children of God are riddled with disease or overtaken by loneliness, are grieving the loss of a spouse or the loss of a job, or are otherwise consumed by the stuff of nightmares.
This is why we need the Christmas story the way Matthew insists upon telling it. This story assures us that God comes into the world as it actually is, not as we wish it would be. Because we live in the actual world, and God's love will be found wherever we are.
Jesus is, quite literally, God-with-us, God's love wrapped up in flesh and bone. So, here is the good news of the gospel to be found in this terrible, tragic story: We are not alone. We are never alone. Do you remember where Jesus is born? He's born in a manger. He is born right into one mess, and he isn't about to abandon us in the midst of any other.
Writer and professor Ross Gay's two most recent books are The Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude and The Book of Delights. He has developed the practice of liking for, and therefore finding, something good within every day. He has come to believe that sorrow and joy are inextricably entangled with one another. He writes:
"Among the most beautiful things I ever heard anyone say came from my student, Bethany, talking about what she dreamed of for her own teaching pedagogy. She said, 'What if we joined our wildernesses together?' Sit with that a minute. That our bodies, our lives, might all carry a wilderness within, an unexplored territory, and that yours and mine might, somehow, meet. Might even join.
"And what if the wilderness, which is almost always portrayed as dense and uncrossable, what if the wilderness is actually our sorrow? It often astonishes me how every person I get to know - everyone, regardless of everything - lives with some profound sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Profiled. Fetus not okay. Everyone lives with some profound personal sorrow, not to mention the existential sorrow we are all afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated, or to put it clearer, will soon die.
"Is sorrow the true wilderness? And if it is, and we join them, your wilderness to mine, what is that? For that act of joining is itself another kind of annihilation.
"What if we joined our sorrows? What if that is the way we find joy!" [Ross Gay, “Tending Joy and Practicing Delight,” On Being, July 25, 2019. Online transcript: https://onbeing.org/programs/ross-gay-tending-joy-and-practicing-delight/#transcript]
This is the good news of the gospel I cling to with every fiber of my being: There is always joy to be found. Because Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. Because Jesus Christ shows up in the good and the bad, in the beautiful and the horrific. Because Jesus Christ is born, today and every day, and the incarnation is Jesus choosing to join with our sorrow now and forevermore.
Remember all those other stories that begin in the dark? The earth is a formless void, and darkness covers the face of the earth. But then God says, "Let there be light." And there is light.
Jacob wrestles with a mysterious man until daybreak, but in the end, he receives a blessing and a limp to help him remember that blessings can be worth fighting for.
Jonah wallows in the deep dark of a whale, but the whale spits him back out, and he becomes an obedient and effective prophet.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus fearful and under cloak of night, but he hears the story of love everlasting and life eternal, and resurfaces at the last, to help prepare Jesus' body for burial with tenderness and care.
And Easter resurrection does its work in the dark, but it is in the bright light of day that Mary sees Jesus again and understands that death, the final enemy, has been defeated.
So many of our best stories begin in the dark, but the truth of Christmas is this and always this: The true light has come into the world, the light no darkness can destroy, the light that is the strongest and sturdiest thing we know, the light that promises a new day is dawning, the light that reminds us how, even when it seems the least likely, joy comes in the morning. Because not one day, not one moment of our lives is ever lived outside the presence of God.
And that is why even now, the angels still sing.