We made it! We made it through another year, to Christmas Day. It’s kind of funny – even though this is technically the beginning of the liturgical season of Christmas, for most of us, today actually tends to mark the end of our Christmas celebration. Churches that were packed with people last night on Christmas Eve often look a little sparser on Christmas morning. I imagine folks are sleeping in, digesting their Christmas feasts. Family members are preparing to fly or drive back to the places that they came from.
And tomorrow, everything goes back to normal. The bright, colorful wrapping paper that once held mystery and surprise will get chucked into the trash. Cherished Nativity scenes will be carefully wrapped up and packed away to wait another year. The twinkling lights will be taken down. Before too long, dried out Christmas trees will be dragged to the curb, and even the clearance shelves at all the stores will soon be emptied to make way for the next big commercial holiday.
Christmas kind of feels like a bright, sparkly, happy dream that ends today, sending us back to the “real” world tomorrow. It feels like for a time, there was peace on earth and good will toward all people. When the world moves on from the celebration, it can leave us wondering what it all really meant, and what is left for us afterward.
This is part of the reason that we take our gospel reading from John today, instead of from Luke. Instead of the familiar Christmas story with angels and shepherds and stars – oh my! – instead of stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood, we have this kind of strange, poetic text from John.
John doesn’t really even talk about Mary and Joseph or the birth of Jesus. Instead, he sets Jesus’ incarnation in a much, much broader context. He writes about Jesus as the divine Word of God, the Word which God spoke at the beginning of all creation, the Word through which everything came to be. Jesus is the Word that is God, the creator. He was no stranger when he came to earth in human form; his incarnation wasn’t some sort of divine invasion. Instead, as John writes, “he came to what was his own.” He came to be among his own beloved people.
Jesus is the light and life of all creation. And his coming into the world brought that light and life into the very heart of darkness and death. He was never some distant, transcendent God, wishing us well from afar; the incarnation brought Jesus up close and personal with the realities of human existence and brokenness. So often, I suspect that we think of Christmas as this jubilant celebration that helps us to rise above the pain and darkness of our lives and escape it – but that actually isn’t what it’s about at all! Instead of being about escaping from our troubles, Christmas is about a God who comes fully, gloriously, in the flesh, right into the midst of human shame and suffering. God doesn’t rise above our pain and darkness. God enters fully into every dark corner of our lives and transforms them into something holy.
God’s glory turns our darkness into light – a light that shines much more brightly than Christmas lights and tinsel; a light that never burns out, a light that never fades and never dies. And daily, it works transformation in us. I know for me, this has been kind of a difficult Christmas. It’s the first Christmas that I’ve been away from my family, and here in a new place, it’s easy to feel kind of lonely, especially as I watch other people celebrating with their families. But God has entered into that feeling of loneliness and transformed it; God’s light emanating from all of you has transformed this season for me: through wonderful music and worship, through the caring shown toward me through cards and gifts and invitations, through the many ways you show up to support me and the other staff here. I have found my experience of Christmas transformed and renewed.
This is the light that goes forward with us from this place and from this season. It stays with us as we go back to work or to school. It still burns brightly inside us as we calculate our taxes and wash the dishes and dive back into our regularly scheduled activities. It goes with us into the darkness of illness and grief and difficult times. It is always there, shining within us, even when we can’t see it.
This is the truly good news of the season, the good news of John’s gospel for us today. The light and life of Christ dwells inside us all the year, not just at Christmastime.
It’s such good news, in fact, that it makes it seem all the stranger that our celebration of Jesus’ incarnation, and the light and life he brings, ends so quickly once Christmas Day is over. It’s strange how easy it can be for us to pack away all the trappings of Christmas and act like we pack up all that light and love and peace and goodwill along with it.
As a culture, we’ve found ways to sort of relegate this light to one brief season of the year. And I suspect that we do this because receiving all this light also asks things of us. It asks things of us that we may not always want to do. The light is meant to shine in the darkness – and we are the ones who are asked to go into the darkness to let it shine. We are called to see the suffering and injustice in this world, and to march fearlessly into the middle of them bearing God’s light and proclaiming God’s glory and love, just as John the Baptist did. We are called into poor neighborhoods, into detention centers and prisons, into homeless shelters and hospitals, into the halls of power where decisions are made that affect the underprivileged, and into the lives of our neighbors in all walks of life.
Just last week, several of us had the opportunity to enter the lives of asylum seekers from Central America who came fleeing violence in their homelands. They arrived hungry and anxious and exhausted, weary from a long, difficult journey that ended in the less-than-loving arms of ICE. As we fed them and talked with them and helped them connect with family members across the country, we could see the transformation that a little love and light began to work in them. And even more noticeable was the transformation that their love and their light began to work in us! Even across language barriers, people found a way to connect with one another, and Christ felt more incarnate and more present than ever before.
The light of Christ calls us out into the wilderness of human brokenness and darkness. It calls us away from the warmth and joy of our Christmas celebrations to bear Christ’s light into the unknown.
But remembering the story of Christ’s incarnation and keeping it with us all year long can give us strength. It renews our faith that we have the power and the love to go out into the world bearing God’s light and life for others. Because the same Christ who long ago became incarnate as a tiny child is now incarnate in us. The Christ who gave his life on the cross and defeated death itself lives on in us. We are the body of Christ, the flesh and blood body of our loving, living God. The life and light that we radiate out into the world is the very same life and light that Christ first shone into our own hearts. It is the light that never fades, that never fails, that never dies.
The light of Christ shines in the darkness – and the darkness will never overcome it.