Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14(15-20), Psalm 96
The people who walked in darkness
… those who lived in a land of deep darkness …
It is no ordinary darkness Isaiah speaks of. Isaiah’s prophecy emerges in the midst of all consuming political oppression. [i] Ahaz, King of Judah, the Southern Kingdom of the Jews, has formed a political alliance with Assyria because he is afraid of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and her allies. It is not a good deal, Judah is a vassal, under constant oppression, and frequent violence, that sets neighbor against neighbor. It is a dark, dark time.
Judah’s / Israel’s relationship with Rome doesn’t begin with a willing invitation, they were simply conquered, and a Legion was garrisoned there, to keep the peace, ~ for Rome. Israel is again a vassal subject to constant oppression, and frequent violence that sets neighbor against neighbor. Augustus’ decree for a census is for the benefit of the Empire, not Israel, not Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Forcing everyone to return to their home town may be oppressive, it is certainly manipulative. It’s a demonstration of raw power; I speak: you and your entire family, town, tribe, are uprooted. Not sure how dark, but times are dark.
Mary and Joseph get a double dose. They are going to Joseph’s home town, going to family, and in first century Palestine you expect hospitality, hospitality that is required. No Vacancy should never have been a problem. They should have been welcomed by someone, anyone in the extended family. And Mary’s pregnancy would make them, at least her, a priority. Think about your visiting family, uncle Bob might, but your pregnant Aunt would never draw the sleeping bag on the floor. [ii] Oppressed by Rome, rejected by family, Mary and Joseph are living in a deep darkness.
Three stories over the last few weeks have sharpened, re-imaged, my tired view of Luke’s narrative. The first is a decades old memory. One cold winter night, as the last freight train of the night rolls out of town a hobo stays behind. The police soon pick him up. The hospital determines he is not sick enough to stay there. The local homeless shelter determines he is too sick to stay there. Everyone one else was, well you what it’s like this time of year. In any case, as an old gospel hymn says “We Didn’t Know Who You Was;”
… as you did to the least of these …
So, with no other place to go, the police took him to jail. And sometime night, when all who had responsibility dimmed the lights, alone, and in the deep darkness he died. [iii]
Elena Dorfman recently finished a stint for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to photograph refugees from the Syrian Civil War. Her task: to put a human face on unfathomable statistics; some two million refugees, of which seven to eight hundred thousand are in Lebanon. The photograph that grabbed my attention, is a discarded freight box, perhaps 3 feet high, and some 3 to 4 feet on each side. It is full of, who knows what; covered with worn, though clean quilt, and an infant boy with a sharp Mohawk hair cut plays inside.
Photo by: Elena Dorfman
It’s almost a quaint image, until you notice the bare concrete wall behind the box, and the dirt floor, with scattered pieces of broken rock. What you don’t see: is the working slaughter house, on the other side of the wall; what you don’t see is the pile of drying pelts, just around the corner. Though it is a bright photograph with vivid reds, and brilliant blues scattered throughout, it’s a scene of deep darkness. It’s of people displaced by local violence and oppression, and foreign collaborators. There are no organized refugee efforts in Lebanon. Perhaps officials are counting on family, and tribal relationships to get the job done. [iv] For some it helps, nonetheless a baby plays in an abandoned crate, as deep darkness enshrouds the land.
The Cones are Eastern Orthodox Christians, fostering a 5 and a 10 year old, who are brothers. They are gradually introducing them into their Advent and Christmas traditions for which the brothers have no context. Each night they share a couple of scripture verses, and a bit of candy. The night comes when the verses told of no room in the Inn, and baby Jesus’ birth in a barn with a manger for a bed. The 10 year old’s head bows, his face is drawn and serious. Ms. Cone asks what he thinks Mary and Joseph feel. Remembering the cold night on the streets, and sheltering in someone else’s car, as safe haven, ‘casue there was nowhere else to go; remembering his mother, ~~ abandoning them, he answers “Sad. Cold.” and quietly tears flow as the deep darkness is remembered.
And then there are the answers to a continuous flow of questions:
Is the baby in the manger is the same Jesus they heard about at church.
Do Christians really believe that the Son of God was born in a manger, without a home to call his own.
Did shepherds in that part of the world really sleep out in the cold while protecting their sheep from, among other threats, lions.
Did coming face to face with an army of angels freaked the shepherds out.
Light begins to dawn, darkness begins to fade away as the glory, the presence of the Lord is revealed.
For century upon century we have sanitized the Gospels’ birth narratives. Look at nativity scenes. All the characters are pristine and clean; but:
- Mary and Joseph have been on the road all day, there is no bath,
- the cave or barn is full of animals, ~ and animal stuff,
- the shepherds, are night shift shepherds, the bottom of the worthless working folk;
and they’ve been working since when? and walking for who knows how long?
- what about the angels? they left the shepherds in the field! there aren’t any at the barn!
The birth scene writ large is the dominated by Assyrian and Roman oppression. Writ specific it’s context is familial rejection it’s setting is degrading, dirty and smelly. But, it is here where light of the world is born, not because of any human action, the powers of the day are as oppressive as ever, and family and friends are as capricious as ever, light is born into the world by the grace of God a gift of God to those who live in deep darkness.
In ’67 we don’t know what powers pushed a man on to the lonely rails, we don’t know what standards were not met, nonetheless a lonely man who walked in the dark, dies, alone, in the dark. Today we know the powers at play in Syria. A baby refugee playing in an abandoned box is perhaps sign of parental ingenuity; certainly it’s a sign that we do not yet see the incarnate presence in front of us. Yes, Jesus is the incarnate presence of God. But incarnation touches every corner of the universe; it infuses every person with the presence of God, thus every person, every child is heir to the incarnation. In sharing Christmas with two foster sons the Cones are sharing light that can transform a young man’s dark experiences. But he too shares a deep truth that can transform us. Christ Jesus is born into darkness: the darkness of the world the state, our community, our homes, and our selves. With the courage of a ten year old, when we face our darkness we will find:
a light shining brightly in our presence,
lives being transformed,
yokes being broken,
burdens being lifted;
we will find
peace, righteousness and justice;
we will hear,
no ~ we will sing ~ a new song:
Glory to God in the highest,and peace on earth,goodwill toward men!
[i] Ingrid Lilly, Working Preacher, Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7, Christmas 2013
[ii] Rev. Cano n Frank S. Logue , episcopaldigitalnetwork.com http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2013/12/09/christmas-eve-abc-2013/, December 24, 2013
[iv] Qainat Khan, NPR hereandnow.wbur.org http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2013/12/03/photographer-syria-portraits
[v] Terry Mattingly, m.arkansasonline.com http://m.arkansasonline.com/news/2013/dec/21/telling-nativity-story-help-foster-boys-20131221/ Telling Nativity story with help of foster boys Saturday, December 21, 2013