Preacher Revd Neil Summers
A couple of Sundays ago, children in this church took part in their own version of the Nativity. As the story was read, the characters – in the form of the children and one brave adult – came to life – Mary, Joseph (the adult!), angels, shepherds, sheep and kings. Whether it be nursery rhymes, fairy tales, the Bible, novels, pantomimes, plays or films, reading stories, listening to them and seeing them acted out brings us face to face with some archetypal truths which have been part of our human consciousness since ancient times. In that spirit, let me tell you a very brief story called, ‘Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?’ Little Bear lives with Big Bear in the Bear Cave. Little Bear has a problem: he is scared of the dark, and so he can’t go to sleep, because there is too much darkness all around him. Big Bear lights lantern after lantern, but nothing helps; there is still too much dark. Even when the Bear Cave is lit with lanterns, the dark can still be seen lurking through the entrance. It isn’t until Big Bear carries Little Bear outside into the worst of the dark and shows him the big yellow moon and the twinkling stars that he is finally able to fall asleep.
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it,” says John’s Gospel. We read it last night at Midnight Mass. Light is a powerful symbol, and it’s not difficult to understand why. For centuries, human societies existed without electric light, so our ancestors knew darkness in a way that we simply do not, especially those of us who live in cities. Think back to the last time there was a power cut at night. We find ourselves confronted with the stark reality of how much we take artificial light for granted, coupled with bewilderment at how, in the absence of light, even familiar surroundings become strange and disorientating. From the earliest times, darkness has been associated with a heightened sense of insecurity, fear and vulnerability. I suspect there is a bit of Little Bear in all of us.
Throughout the season of Advent, we have been hearing the familiar blessing: ‘Christ the son of righteousness shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path’. On one level, darkness is, of course, literal. But, symbolically, darkness can take many forms in our lives – for instance, living in a war zone; excessive pressure or stress; fear or anxiety; addictive or compulsive behaviour; financial worries; job insecurity; relationships gone wrong; loneliness; health problems; loss and bereavement. Doubt or disbelief can be no less disturbing, and can plunge us into spiritual darkness. We look to the divine for light in our darkness, sometimes clinging on by our fingertips, but still we may find ourselves wondering if anyone is listening or understands how we feel.
St. John’s Gospel, albeit with symbolic and mysterious language, addresses these fears head-on: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” By contrast, both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels – we just read from Luke – use the more easily understood language of storytelling to narrate the Christmas accounts of Mary, Joseph, angels and shepherds that we all recognise. Of course, many of us have become so familiar with the story that we can easily sentimentalise it and make it too cosy. But this story carries a much harsher reality; it, too, deals with very human fears. Let me re-tell it, very briefly, but using a different vocabulary. A young, single woman – little more than a girl in reality – is shocked to find herself pregnant before she is married. She is the cause of much speculation, gossip and scandal in her community, as is her older and somewhat perplexed fiancé. Living under occupation, they are compelled to undertake an arduous, exhausting journey to register for payment of poll tax to the occupying forces, only to find themselves in a situation they wouldn’t have dared imagine – stranded in the city, at night, in the dark, with nowhere to stay, no one to turn to and the woman in the early stages of labour. When the baby is born in a draughty, smelly stable, they then come under threat from a tyrannical king and, fleeing for their lives, find themselves refugees for at least two years.
I suspect that for all those who wonder what the Christmas story has to do with the real world and our lives today, this version has much more to offer. For it makes clear that the realities of life can frequently make any of us vulnerable or fragile; that there has always been conflict, danger, abuse of power, and rejection in our world; that parents often have to struggle to raise and to protect their children from harm. But this story also tells us that, even in the midst of chaos, darkness and life’s harshest realities, the light which cannot be extinguished can break into our human experience to offer the potential for transformation and hope. That realisation is the epiphany Little Bear undergoes when he sees the brilliance of the moon and the stars in the night sky. It reminds me of my holiday in Devon this year, where in the pitch black night in the middle of nowhere, I stood outside our rented cottage in the woods, looked up and tracked the paths of several shooting stars, something you’d hardly ever be able to see in London. It is all symbolic of an awakening to the potential for light to break into our darkness, whatever form that might take. This is the Christmas story’s assurance that, however difficult life may sometimes be, God is no less present, and there is always the chance for light to penetrate the dark. This is also the essential message of John’s rather different take on the story in his understanding of the holy birth. John sees Jesus as the embodiment of life, and light, and as the Word of God, the Word who became human, the one definitive Word we encounter among the many other words found in the Jesus story as told by Matthew and Luke. This story is about a God who, in Jesus, has shared our earthly struggles and dilemmas, has lived, breathed, moved, loved, laughed, and – crucially – wept when faced with the darkness which is part – but only part – of the human experience of life in the world. This bringing together of divinity and humanity is symbolised right here, today, in the story of this baby, in whom heaven comes to earth, the child who makes God human and therefore real to us. The darkness cannot and will not have the last word, for the light is here and it cannot be extinguished. And that is precisely why we are celebrating today. Happy Christmas!