Christmas Eve 2014
It gets darker…
She went to turn up the Weather Channel as the first flakes began to fall. It looked so innocent now, but the forecast had said that something bigger and badder was coming. Now, she had paid enough attention to Kansas meteorologists for long enough to know that the number of flakes that were supposed to fall was directly corresponding to the amount of ad time that the news station needed to sell. But yet she watched again, in case they were right this time. She decided to stay home on Christmas Eve for the first time in over a decade, but she didn’t want to risk it.
Besides that, it wasn’t quite right this year, anyway. With Bryce gone, she couldn’t quite bring herself to come to church on Christmas Eve. The kids had invited her over to their church, but she had told them that she wanted to go to her own. But as the hour came closer, it was harder and harder to imagine herself walking in there without Bryce. Singing the songs without Bryce. Lighting the candles without Bryce. The snow was really just a helpful excuse. She wasn’t sure that she would have been able to get there if it was 60 degrees.
It gets darker…in the valley of the shadow of grief.
It gets darker and darker…
He checked his phone again. He didn’t want to look like he was checking his phone the whole night, but deep down he was thinking about little else. His 21 year old daughter Anna had told him that she might try and drop by the family Christmas Eve celebration. But she had said it in that tone. “Might try…” could have well have been “fat chance…”
It was yet another night, and yet another chance that he had for his fears to run away from him. Of course, he blamed the snow for the reason for his worry. As it began to fall, he told his wife and other kids that he just wanted her to be safe. But the truth was that he was worried about any dozen of things that might go wrong. The friends that she chose to hang out with. The binges that he knew she went on regularly. The look in her eye when he did see her, that told him that she wasn’t daddy’s little girl anymore. And the worry and anxiety that he felt didn’t go away. His wife tried to convince him that it was her life and she was an adult now. His son and daughter and law told him that he wasn’t going to make it better by worrying. But yet…he thought he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. As he checked another false alarm, the family began to pass the cranberry relish.
It gets darker and darker…in the valley of the shadow of fear.
It gets darker and darker and darker…
She couldn’t believe the email when she saw it. She would have had her husband come to read it to check her interpretation of it, if it weren’t for the fact that he would have gone ballistic. It was from her boss, and it was pretty clearly implying that she needed to come into the office on 10 am on Christmas morning for a meeting with their international partners. Now, he didn’t come out and say that she had to come in. That would be against company policy. And a pretty bad move, since he was in Hawaii for the week. But it didn’t take her much work to figure out that he expected her there. And here it was on Christmas Eve, barely twelve hours before the meeting!
It wasn’t the first time that his boss had been cagey and manipulative. He had had a horrible year himself personally, and his wife had threatened divorce more than once. And so his Hawaii trip was an attempt to straighten things out with her. But meanwhile, someone had to get the work done. And it looked that that someone was her.
She slammed the tablet on the desk and went back in to where the kids were finishing their letters to Santa and decorating the accompanying cookies. Her husband could tell something was wrong, but she didn’t want to tell him until she knew what she wanted to do. But before long, when she found herself screaming at the kids for getting icing on the tablecloth, that she knew she couldn’t keep it inside any longer. As the snow began to fall outside, she showed him the email and braced for his response.
It gets darker and darker and darker..in the valley of the shadow of resentment.
These words are from a quotation attributed to poet Wendell Berry by writer Anne Lamott. According to Lamott, he spoke these words some 30 years ago when the two of them were in a tiny bookstore for a book signing by Berry, watching a December storm out the window. If I can hold back on my geeked-out response of how cool it would have been to find myself in that tiny bookstore with these two literary legends, let me focus instead on Berry’s words.
“It gets darker and darker and darker; and then baby Jesus is born.”
Five years ago tonight, some of you joined me as we watched from this very sanctuary as a December snowstorm – literally a blizzard – dumped a couple of feet of snow on Lawrence as we nervously kept one eye on the candles we were lighting and the other on the snow outside falling.
That night, right at my one-month anniversary at the church, I had no idea what journey I was joining. A journey with you that wound through some valleys. Grief. Fear. Resentment. Family struggles and vocational difficulties. Relational trauma and physical illness. We have laughed together and cried together and walked through the shadows together.
And through it all, Berry’s words have rung true. It gets darker and darker and darker; and then baby Jesus is born. What a powerful reminder of the story and how much of it takes place in the dark. As a matter of fact, think for a moment how important the darkness is to the story. I would suggest that darkness is one of the primary characters! Think about how different the story would have been if it had taken place in the daylight.
Mary and Joseph arriving before the inns had filled up for the night.
Angels appearing to shepherds at high noon? Still impressive, but perhaps not as much.
The Magi wouldn’t have even been able to see the star during the daylight. It had to be dark.
• But the point of the story is not that God only exists in the light.
• The point of the story may just be that it is in the darkness that we can tell best that God is near.
• Maybe the point of the story is that only in the shadows of the valley – of our own valleys of darkness – are we ready for the baby to be born again.
Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way:
“I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”
She looked up with determination and switched off the weather channel. It had been saying the same thing every 8 minutes for the last 4 hours anyway. She looked up at the clock and decided that she still had time. The snow wasn’t heavy enough anyway, and she knew where she needed to be. A quick run through the closet, a quick brush through the hair, and she was out the door in time for the first hymn. And she knew at once that she had made the right choice. There was nowhere else that she would rather be than with her community of faith, sharing the story of faith, singing the songs of faith. This year, she needed baby Jesus to come to her more than ever before. And this time, when she lit the candle, she lit it for Bryce. And even in the darkness, especially in the darkness, “…baby Jesus was born.”
He finally gave in and went to the other room to check his phone without any of the glares from around the room. He did it right this time. He checked his texts. He checked his email. He checked his Facebook messenger. Nothing. She wasn’t coming. But as he heard the clinking of dishes in the next room, he looked down at the nativity set lit up by the lights of the Christmas tree. And he looked at the angels and the shepherds and the wise men, and his eyes settled on Joseph. The one guy in the story that seems to figure it out last. He was ready to divorce Mary before it took an angel to come to him in a dream and get him straight. He was ready to take charge before the angel told him that someone else was already in charge. But what must he have felt that night, to let go of the control and shame and fear and just let God make it happen? So before he could talk himself out of it, he picked up his phone and sent a quick text to his daughter. A reminder that he loved her and that he always would. And with that, he left the phone in front of the nativity, and gave her back once more. And even in the darkness, especially in the darkness, “…baby Jesus was born.”
She was afraid that he would throw the tablet across the room when he read the email, but he just smiled. She hesitantly smiled back, not sure what was really going through his head. Resentment? Frustration? Murder? A cousin Eddie kidnapping plot? But when he spoke, none of that came out. Instead, he suggested that they make a day of it. The kids were going to tear open all their gifts by 6:45 am anyway. That way they could all get dressed and pile in the SUV and head to town for her meeting. They could pack their brunch and as soon as she was done with the meeting, go down to the lake. She laughed and with a new joy in her voice, she had a new idea. They would do all that stuff that he had said….but no meeting. She had to draw the line somewhere.
With tears in her eyes, she remembered once more why she married him.
With puffy and red cheeks, they put out the rest of the presents under the tree.
And even in the darkness, especially in the darkness, “…baby Jesus was born.”