A BLUE CHRISTMAS - SERMON ON JOHN 14:1-7 - FR. TONY MOON, ST. AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
“Blue Christmas” Service
Monday, December 21, 2020, 6:30 p.m.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In his dark night of the soul, he doubted all that he’d given his heart and his life to. Thomas, in our Gospel lesson, questions his peers in their belief about the one they’d come to love and follow. In this dark night, he doubted his own Redeemer. The reality of his senses over took the Truth he’d come to know. In this dark night of the soul, darkness within and darkness without, darkness cast doubt; it unseated Thomas’ belief in his transcendent Lord.
The “Dark Night of the Soul” is the title of a poem by St. John of the Cross. And, in common “church parlance,” it has come to represent the darkness we feel in our souls when doubt creeps in, doubt that replacesany sure knowledge of our relationship with God our Creator, Jesus our Redeemer, or Holy Spirit our Sanctifier. Folks set adrift on the waters of doubt often describe the life of their spirit as a “dark night”: “I’m in a dark night,” they say. The visual image clearly defines their intertwined emotional, spiritual and psychological lives in only a couple words.
This evening is indeed a dark night, as well. As it happens, this night of December 21st marks the Winter Solstice or December Solstice, which means that it is the shortest day--with the least amount of sunlight, and the longest night--with the most amount of darkness--that we experience during the course of the entire year. In this long night, it might be easy to get physically lost, or emotionally lost, in the darkness. Spiritually, it might be easy to believe the input of our senses and disregard any higher messages of our soul. We might surrender to darkness, saying, “It is dark and I have lost my way. All is lost.” Groping our way through the darkness, perhaps a road once easily traveled becomes a tedious and difficult passage. Questions soar and doubt settles in—just as it did with Thomas.
This year of 2020 has not been kind to us: Easily identified insults are the COVID pandemic, racial and social injustices, and a declining—sometimes failing—economy. And, then there are those of us that have endured not only the commonly shared hardships we’ve all undergone, but who have also sustained our own personal difficulties with illness and loss. We wait for the pandemic to subside. We wait for health to return. We wait for resolution from distress. We wait for things to return to some kind of familiar normal.
In this season of Advent, we wait. We wait not really for that one day of Christmas when we commemorate the birth of Jesus over 2000 years ago, but in Advent, a time of preparation and waiting, we prepare and await the re-birth of Jesus in our own lives. In this season of waiting with expectation, we mirror the Virgin Mother’s experience of herexpecting—her waiting with expectation. Remembering St. Mary’s wait—her actual pregnancy, in which deep in the darkness of her womb, a life began stirring little by little, as God knit together the cells and fibers, the muscle and bone of no one other than our Lord and Savior. While it seemed in the outer world that nothing particularly special was occurring, in the darkness of Mary’s womb, God was about the work of creating a Savior of the world.
In the dark night of the soul, and in the darkness of Mary’s womb—both appear to be devoid of God’s presence, let alone God’s actions. This maybe even a time we experience as “apart from God”—apart from aGod that we are told is everywhere at all time. And, perhaps God iseverywhere, it may seem, except in my darkness, as God seems away from me. God seems to have made some kind of reverse personal appointment with me--a time appointed in which God will make an effort to avoid me…rather than meet with me, while at the same time, it seems, God is otherwise intimately involved with every other person, every life form, every rock.
And, as we have been told before, God is not absent from us, it is wewho hold God at bay—whether we mean to or not; whether we even know it or not. And it is possible that it might seem risky to have a conversation with God, to let God in. If we let God in, we might be uplifted… or even comforted or healed of our loss or grief; we might gain some freedom we don’t currently experience. And, that just might seem risky--What happens next? Or, it may even seem disrespectful. Resolving our grief, accepting a new freedom from grief, could somehow mean forgetting a beloved relationship--which we know, in our clear thinking, is not true.
Thinking about accepting a new relationship to ourselves as healing—maybe not cured, but healing, coming to wholeness—might prompt us to ask, “Who am I to expect that things could be better for me?” But, the question disintegrates in the reality of an always-loving God. We might think that opening ourselves to God might mean opening ourselves to the next thing God has in store for us—and, maybe I’m not ready for that. Maybe I want to sit with the memories a little longer; maybe in an unexpected way, I’ve become comfortable with how things are. And, that’s OK. It’s OK to remember who we love and miss, especially at this time of year. Maybe our hearts are far from the joy we experienced when we celebrated these sweet seasons with them… but, they can be full of tender joy for having had them in our lives—a gift from a God who loves us.
At this time of year, it may seem that the whole world is marching right on by. It could seem that everyone else is in a joyous step with the right drummer, one who is clearly dialed in to this joyous time of year--and we are somehow wrong or maligned because our steps are halting. Our pain or fear block us from seeing the joy obvious to others. It is at this time that we can be reminded of the words of Ecclesiastes, that there are different drummers, for different people, at different times, because to everything there is a season and a purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to break down and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance…You are OK where you are. Grief and mourning are natural human experiences. And if something within you tells you that this grief, this illness, this focus on loss or slight or irritation has gone on too long, and that something physical, medical, psychological, spiritual must be worked out to move on, know that you are not alone. St. Thomas shared his disbelief with his community. I encourage you to share your doubt and sadness with your community as well—whether that is family, church, friends, neighbor, physician, therapist, AA sponsor or other. There are always, it seems, others near us that care for us more than we ever suspect! Others who willingly join us in our dark times. Others who would not see it as a burden to join you, but an honor. Be willing for a little time, to lean on those persons that God has placed in your path for this very reason.
Whether we know it or not, whether we can even imagine it or not, even in the midst of our darkness, in the midst of our anger, loss, grief and struggle, God is loving us and working within us. Loss, grief and struggle have a way of casting us as victims, causing us to forget any power we have. We would do well to see through this illusion, to re-establish our relationship with God our Maker, and pray to God for yourown condition and for others in similar circumstances. Pray for a hurting world that so needs your prayers.
God has not forgotten us. God has not pushed us away while God looks for happier people to share time with. God does not require us to be whole or settled, calm or happy to be with us, to work within us. The Holy Scriptures are wrought with people of failings who God uses to act on His behalf and bring his message to the world. We can do well to remember that Jesus climbed a hill one day, and addressed a large crowd of followers, saying that it is the poor in spirit, it is those who mourn, it is the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted because of righteousness whom he holds close. These are the ones to whom Jesus promises the Kingdom of God.
In our darkness--and we are all broken and lost in some way—Jesus isreadying us, charting our course. God loves us so much, that God sent his only Son, born in lowly circumstances, to live among us, to die for us--especially when we are splintered away from God; God sent the Christ to redeem us. And, sometimes, our dark night wants to rob us of that clear knowledge. Our darkness makes us want to forget that we are beloved children of God. Darkness created doubt in St. Thomas. Andyet, this is only called “being human.” God meets us where we are: in our trials God meets us; in our darkness, God meets us; in our brokenness and grief, God meets us. With the face of Jesus, God meets us—and this is a face that looks just like the face of your neighbor, just like the face of the person sitting next to you.
Eventually, darkness yields to light, as we are told in an earlier chapter of John’s Gospel, the darkness is overcome by light. And, Thomas’ doubt—spoken out loud, spoken and shared with others in his community, leads Thomas to believe and know. Even our Winter Solstice with its dark night, when all is said and done, is a necessary turning point in that tomorrow our day of sunlight will be a tiny bit longer and our night of darkness will be a tiny bit shorter—a pattern that will continue well into the coming new year and our next seasons.
Fr. Tony Moon, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Various Clergy and members of St. Augustine contribute to authoring the blog on a variety of topics.