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PROBABLY WASN’T THAT SILENT OF A NIGHT

A sermon preached by Brian Mason
At the First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
On Sunday, December 9, 2018

“Silent night, holy night,” the song begins; “all is calm, all is bright.” In the song, at the midnight hour of the child’s birth even the night glows bright; silent, bright night.

But how does one illuminate darkness? Of course, the stars and the moon glow bright on clear nights, and the windows of homes and churches shine bright. But bright darkness is something else entirely. What is required for night to shine brightly is, as best I can tell, magic.

Up here on the edge of the Northwoods night comes quite quickly and lingers a bit longer than I would like. These days I eat breakfast and dinner in the dark. It is by no accident that Christmas occurs in winter. Lighting Christmas trees and hanging stockings with care might be things our spiritual ancestors borrowed from pagans. But by now the traditions are mainstream, and they have nourished our souls and warmed our hearts for generations.

The Search Committee that invited me to become this church’s minister warned me about Wausau’s long, cold, and dark winters. They even sent me special socks and an instruction manual about Hygge, which is the Danish and Scandinavian art of finding joy in winter’s frigid blackness. The Danes and Scandinavians are big fans of cozy socks, and fireplaces come highly recommended as you might imagine. So is hot cocoa laced with your favorite spirit; these experts also endorse canoodling should you be so lucky as to know someone who wants to canoodle you back.

The book’s philosophy is this: cold and darkness is the pits, so we might as well figure out a few ways to enjoy it. This morning’s sermon is about finding courage, comfort, and joy in winter’s long darkness; it is about reclaiming the darkness.

The villain in literature and film is always associated with darkness. In Star Wars, good vs. evil is a fight between the Empire and the Resistance, between the light and the dark side of the force. The battle between the light and the dark is at work in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Milton’s Paradise Lost. In science fiction movies, the aliens always park their spaceships above Manhattan and blot out the sun. The great poet Petrarch described the era following the fall of Rome as the Dark Ages.

And “Biblically speaking,” in the words of the Episcopal Priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor, “darkness is the pits. In the first testament, light stands for life and darkness for death. Sheol is dark as hell. When God is angry with people, they are plunged into darkness. Locusts darken the land. People grope in the dark without light, for the day of the Lord is darkness and not light.” Whenever we experience an existential crisis and begin to question life’s purpose, we often hear it described as a dark night of the soul.

But we are not followers of Shakespeare or Milton, nor do we pledge allegiance to the Empire or Resistance (though I’d advise against the Empire if you’re considering). We are the inheritors of a faith that encourages us to resist the dominant culture with everything we’ve got. Our spiritual ancestors taught us to regard the night as something full of magic and mystery. For us, winter’s darkness is but the echo of spring’s light—life happens in the dark, too. That is what this season of Advent is all about.

Knowing I had this sermon in mind to preach to all of you this morning my wife sat out the Advent meditations she is using this year. The book of meditations, called All Creation Waits, describes how creatures big and small prepare for the long and bitter winter. The painted turtle, I learned, buries itself in the mud at the bottom of frozen lakes and rivers. It pulls its body deep into its shell, takes one final breath and holds it all winter long. If it moves, it dies. Its life depends on a self-induced coma. The author of the meditation tells the reader that in the end it all comes down to an inward “Trust: that one day…the world will warm again, and with it…life.”

This season of Advent directs our gaze inward, bidding us to meditate on the giftedness of life; to give thanks for the harvests that stocked the grocery stores, and cupboards, and freezers with enough food to survive the winter; with enough food to ensure everyone survives the winter.

Moreover, for people of faith, this season of thanksgiving is celebrated best when we give gifts; when we bring friends into the warmth of our homes and share with them food and laughter. We are encouraged to follow the example of the three Wise Men and give gifts, and not just toys, and socks, and trinkets, but the gift of ourselves—to find something or someone in need and give all that we can with only one hope: that we will receive nothing in return save the simple satisfaction of giving.

We are to be like the man in the Jewish story who learns that the end is near. The man doesn’t grab his finest bottle of whiskey or throw a fabulous party. Instead he plants a tree with the hope that one day in the future someone, anyone will get a chance to enjoy its shade, and the gentle sound of wind through its leaves.

Advent teaches us that there is life in this period of lasting darkness, and that all of life is indeed a gift. Dominant culture works very hard to convince you that you’ve gotten where you are because you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps; that you earned the business your customers give you; that your smarts paved the way for that college degree and successful career. Advent tells you otherwise; it reminds you that once you were just a tiny growing child in a woman’s belly; that your body was stitched together in the black warmth of a womb. All of us are alive this morning which means our lungs are working, so do our kidneys and livers and hearts—you did nothing to make those fine machines work—your life is a gift from the dark.

Life begins in the cool, black earth where seeds are planted. The food you eat, and the food eaten by the food you eat is a gift from the dark.

The Hebrew poet of Genesis imagines God digging her hands deep into the soil and fashioning the first human out of the dark earth. The season of Advent reminds us that there is life in this period of long darkness, and that we have a way to go before spring’s welcome light. And so, we wait in the darkness.

The church celebrates this season because for us the darkness is illuminated. It is illuminated by hope, by the miracle of life. Deep inside the earth and in womb blackness life is becoming life. In Hebrew one of the words for darkness is araphel. Araphel isn’t used to describe the night; it is used to describe the thick darkness that indicates God’s presence. In the book of Isaiah God reminds the prophet that it is God who forms the light and creates the darkness. There is creation in darkness; in darkness there is life. One of Advent’s lessons is to let the darkness of this season illuminate your life; let it guide you to the wonder of it all, to the not-yet future.

The season of Advent and the source of Christmas do not symbolize what is past, but what is possible. We are not called to live by experience, but by faith. We are called bear witness to the birth of the child born on that silent and holy night because his story symbolizes that fact that hope isn’t born in a manger at all. Hope is born in each and every one of us. And our job as people of faith is to spread that hope, to illuminate the darkness, and herald the light that is to come.

Amen. I love you. And may God bless us all.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Redeeming darkness,” The Christian Century, November 28, 2011, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-11/redeeming-darkness.

[2] Gayle Boss, All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, Inc., 2016), 2.