Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord
Watch the Sermon Here
This last week was the winter solstice – the astronomical event closest to the feast of the Incarnation – and this year, in a wonderful congruence, the two largest planets in our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, on that very day appeared so close in our sky they nearly seemed as one. It was called the Great Conjunction, the Christmas Star. It was the closest they have appeared in the night sky in 800 years. What an amazing thing. I hope you’ve had a chance to see something of this in the sky this week, despite our clouds.
That evening of the solstice I walked our dog along the Hudson after sunset to see if I could catch a view. And all along the river in the dusk were clumps of people, bundled up against the cold and staring into the southwest. I turned to come back home and passed even more people in Riverside park on their way to see. This conjunction was something worth coming out for.
In the past few weeks around the Upper West Side I have come across other clumps of people, standing together, bundled against the cold, watching something wild. Last week, it was a hawk making a meal of a rat on a low tree branch in the park. A few weeks ago, they were watching one of our newly famous NYC owls. On that occasion, I was running, and a woman intercepted me and practically screamed at me to STOP! THERE’S AN OWL!! she said excitedly, and another man pressed his binoculars into my hand so I could see too. Busy New Yorkers, with nothing better to do than stand and witness to wildlife.
Maybe this is all because of the pandemic. Maybe everyone is stir-crazy and bored and looking for any kind of distraction, especially one that gets them outside their apartments. But it felt like more to me. Here were people noticing something outside themselves – noticing something wild, something wonderful – wonderful enough that they simply must stop and see. It’s what happens in national parks and farm roadsides and even city streets. Something interrupts our routines, and we notice. And we stop to see it, and feel it.
Welcome to Christmas Eve 2020. Here in our present darkness, we are ready to stop and see the light. Those who live in a land of deep darkness – on them, light is shining. That means us, this year.
I don’t have to tell you all the ways it feels dark this year. We all know it only too well. Our government leaders malfunction and the poor are suffering further. Poverty and unemployment are on the rise. People are sick with a virus that still feels out of control. So many of us have lost someone this year – and so many of us are alone, not with those we love on this Christmas. And the boredom, the tedium, the sameness makes it hard to keep going. The longest night of the solstice a few days ago sometimes feels as though it could stretch on forever.
It’s all just as it was in that first Christmas so long ago. That too is a story that takes place in darkness. There’s an occupying force brutally oppressing the people of Palestine. There’s a government decree that sends everyone, rich and poor, scurrying to comply. A humble, no-account couple traveling by foot, the woman about to give birth, can’t even find a room to stay in this strange town. Rough scraggly shepherds are out doing their job in the wilderness, hungry and cold the same as any night. Everything is ordinary and sad and wretched as only life can be.
And in the midst of that, angels, and glory, and light blazes forth. Everyone in the story sees it; everyone in the story is changed. They rejoice and praise God; they tell everyone around them the amazing news; they keep all that they have seen and treasure it in their hearts. And because of that story, we too are changed.
That story is why children are aglow with excitement tonight. That story is why lights are shining all over the city, sparkling and twinkling in the rain this evening. Because of that story, through the wonders of technology, we are together on this Christmas Eve, even if not all in the same place, or even at the same time. That story has given us something for all of us to treasure and hold.
I came across a poem this week, by Mary Oliver – perhaps because of the stars and the owl and the snow this week, it has stayed with me for days. So I share it with you:
Snowy Night Last night, an owl in the blue dark tossed an indeterminate number of carefully shaped sounds into the world, in which, a quarter of a mile away, I happened to be standing. I couldn’t tell which one it was – the barred or the great-horned ship of the air – it was that distant. But, anyway, aren’t there moments that are better than knowing something, and sweeter? Snow was falling, so much like stars filling the dark trees that one could easily imagine its reason for being was nothing more than prettiness. I suppose if this were someone else’s story they would have insisted on knowing whatever is knowable – would have hurried over the fields to name it – the owl, I mean. But it’s mine, this poem of the night, and I just stood there, listening and holding out my hands to the soft glitter falling through the air. I love this world, but not for its answers. And I wish good luck to the owl, whatever its name – and I wish great welcome to the snow, whatever its severe and comfortless and beautiful meaning.
Tonight is a moment like that. And all through our lives, we have moments like that. Moments of mystery – moments when we nearly grasp something beyond our understanding and our daily awareness. In the flash of feeling as we see the stars align, or the bird in the tree, or a child with their face full of joy. Even in the darkest moments when all feels lost. Something interrupts us, and we stop to see it, and to feel it.
Light shines in the darkness. And the thing is, light is always shining in the darkness. It’s just that we often fail to see it. We get caught up in the daily humdrum of life, the tasks and the chores and the worries and the everlasting sameness. We get choked by the loss and the fear and the anger. We start to persuade ourselves that the light doesn’t exist; that we never saw it; that those who tell us of it must be deluded and mistaken. We stay in deep darkness because we don’t remember how to do otherwise.
But tonight is a reminder. Tonight is a moment of mystery and wonder. Tonight is a sign that out beyond our worries and pain and rational explanations, God is there. Tonight is a sign that right here, right in our midst, God is here. God has always been here.
The teacher James Finley says of these moments:
I was granted a taste of a mystery without which I know my life will be forever incomplete, and I will not break faith with my awakened heart. I will not play the cynic. That is, I know it’s true because I tasted it. I tasted it as true. I can’t explain it, but I know that it’s true.
Tonight awakens our hearts. Tonight the light shines for every one of us, even here in our darkness. Tonight we stop and see and witness together. Hold this. Do not break faith with yourself. The light shines on, always and everywhere. God is here. God with us.