If you’ve been with us at St. Aidan’s over the last four weeks, you’ll know that each Sunday we’ve been lighting a specific candle on the Advent wreath. On the wreath are four candles, and each represents a particular virtue that we long to see realized in the world and in our own lives. We began with the candle of hope, followed by peace, and then joy. Yesterday we lit the candle of love.
Tonight we’ve lit the fifth and final candle in the middle of the wreath—the Christ candle—which signifies the light that has come into the world with the birth of Jesus. It’s the candle that fulfills all our longings for hope, for peace, for joy, for love. Tonight, as the words of O Little Town of Bethlehem remind us, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in the thee tonight.”
The Christ candle is what Christmas is all about. We celebrate the light of Christ, the birth of Immanuel, a name that literally means “God with us.” Tonight is the fulfillment of those words we heard from the prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” What sort of light is this? It is the light that helps us to see that God and humanity—indeed, God and the whole cosmos—are brought together. It is the light that shows us that our darkness—both in the world and in our own lives—can be overcome. It is a light that illumines a path toward a transformed world, toward union with God.
That light, however, does not yet shine everywhere, immediately. It has a specific point of origin. In the well-known story from St. Luke’s Gospel, the light appears first to lowly shepherds, working the nightshift in the field. These were men often scorned and shamed because their work forced them to leave their wives and children unprotected at night. They lived a spiral of downward social mobility. Yet it is on these shepherds that the light shines—and they are terrified! Is their lack of dignity now fully exposed, they wonder? No, they quickly realize that this light is Good News of deliverance: the Messiah has been born to establish justice in the land. Compelled by the irresistible quality of the light, the shepherds follow it to the unlikeliest of places—not to the center of Jerusalem where we might expect that Good News would be announced for all to hear, but to the little town of Bethlehem where a young woman has just given birth to her first child.
This young woman, Mary, hasn’t had it easy over the last few months. For starters, she found herself pregnant, even before she married Joseph—and he wasn’t the biological father. We’re not told exactly how she became pregnant; that remains an age-old unsolved mystery. But her pregnancy immediately put her in a tough spot: she was staring at the real possibility of a hopeless future with no support anywhere. Nevertheless, Joseph sticks it out with her. And now the two have recently arrived in Bethlehem, a 10-day journey on foot from their home in the north, in Nazareth. They were forced to make this trek because everyone living under Roman rule—and that included everyone in the region of Palestine—had to register for a tax census. In our present day, we get a census form in the mail; we fill it out and mail it back. But in Joseph’s case, he had register in person in his ancestral town. And so they arrive in Bethlehem, only to find that the local Motel 6 is booked solid. Seeing that Mary is about to go into labor, someone presumably allows them stay in a manger, a rickety structure where domestic livestock are fed. There Jesus is born.
And it is to there that the shepherds follow the Christ light. They follow it to a place where only someone desperate would seek shelter. They follow the light to a woman whose pregnancy defied social norms. They follow the light to a helpless baby. When we follow the Christ light, it compels us to reevaluate life from the standpoint of the margins, in contact with those struggling to stay afloat, even those down and out. The Christ light shines tonight on young unwed mothers, on minimum-wage workers who right now are putting in 12-hour night shifts, on families living paycheque to paycheque in woefully inadequate and unaffordable housing, on refugees struggling to find their way in the darkness of a new land. And the angelic voice offers assurance: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
That is the wonder of Christmas—that our fears can be set aside, and our hope for a world transformed by peace, joy and love can be a reality, not only for ourselves but everyone, especially those pushed out on the edge. But, the cynic objects, how can this be anything but an empty hope? As we witness an affordable housing crisis in our own city, police misconduct and abuse of power, starvation in Yemen, the planet getting increasingly warmer, earthquakes triggering deadly tsunamis—does the light of Christ truly offer us any Good News?
The answer is Yes. Because the light keeps on shining. As the darkness might deepen, the light intensifies. The same light that shone on the shepherds illumines a path that each of us are invited to follow—a path that begins in infancy in Bethlehem, matures in Nazareth, and climaxes in execution in Jerusalem. Christmas in the end is an invitation to follow the Way of Jesus, to pattern our lives after his on a daily basis, to speak truth to power, to care for those in need, to live simply with integrity, to walk with all those who strive to do the same, to love God and our each and every neighbor. It’s a journey of adventure without a blueprint, and as we follow the light of Christ, we are pulled—and the world is pulled—ever closer into the fullness of hope, peace, joy, love—indeed, into the very heart of God.
The Christ light is shining. Follow the light. Celebrate the light blazing around us, in us, and through us. In all of that, have a merry Christmas!