Carlos Wilton, December 24, 2012; Christmas Eve; Matthew 2:1-12
“Then [Herod] sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’”
– Matthew 2:8
Let’s start, this evening, with a riddle. It comes from The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The hobbit Bilbo Baggins and Gollum — that twisted creature — are engaged in a war of wits. Gollum challenges Bilbo to tell him what it is his riddle is describing:
“It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt,
It lies behind stars and under hills,
And empty holes it fills,
It comes first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.”
And what is thing that can neither be seen nor felt, heard nor smelt; that lurks behind stars, under hills and int the bottom of holes; that ends life and murders laughter? Let’s allow Tolkien himself to supply the answer:
“Unfortunately for Gollum Bilbo had heard that sort of thing before; and the answer was all around him anyway. ‘Dark!’ he said without even scratching on his head or putting on his thinking cap.”
The answer to Gollum’s riddle — appropriately enough, for that creature of the night — is darkness. The curse of December. The ever-present reality that dogs our heels in these relentlessly wintering days. Maybe that’s why candlelight Christmas Eve services have such appeal.
A lot of us got much better-acquainted with darkness a couple months ago, as we made do without electricity for so many nights. We learned, during those long nights, how even familiar things look so very different by candlelight, or as they’re caught in a feeble flashlight-beam. We who brashly light our lives with electricity were suddenly cast back into the world of our ancestors, world of shadow.
Those literal shadows haven’t been the only ones we’ve been observing in recent weeks. The creeping black storm surge was one. It not only pushed some houses off their foundations and filled others with mold and decay, but knocked a great many lives off their foundations as well.
Philosophers would say a storm like that falls under the category of natural evil, but that form of evil is only the half of it. The 24-hour news stations have delivered to us, in all-too-vivid detail, descriptions of human evil: the grim news out of Newtown, Connecticut. Living in the most heavily-armed society on earth, many of us now realize how easily a similar horror could happen here: or in any other community across this land.
That’s the way it is with darkness. As Tolkien says, it ends life and kills laughter.
This present age has no monopoly on darkness. We’ve only to look at the Christmas story to glimpse the way darkness insinuates itself even into the brightest and most beautiful of tales. Darkness is even there, lurking alongside Herod’s spies in Bethlehem’s narrow, winding streets and alleys: make no mistake about it. You can’t escape evil in this world, no more than you can run away from your shadow.
I very nearly titled this sermon, “Let’s Put Herod Back into Christmas.” Few of us, as we recall the Christmas story, want to allow that venal, corrupt, paranoid ruler a place in it. The most we’ll abide is that passing reference in Matthew, about the wise men stopping by the king’s palace on their way to Bethlehem. Herod’s pandering command — to “go and search diligently for the child,” so he, too, may “go and pay him homage” — is a chilling reminder of the hard world that still exists, just outside the stable sheltering Mary and Joseph and “the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.”
Who’d want to portray Herod on a Christmas card? How would you portray him, if you did? Would you fashion the king into a huge and overbearing figure, leering over the roof of the stable? Or would you quietly slip a few of his soldiers into the creche, between awestruck shepherds and reverent magi? Rather than shepherds’ crooks and gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, these new additions could be portrayed reaching into their tunics to pull out their swords — a low-tech version of the sort of obscenity perpetrated in Newtown.
In uttering those devious words that ostensible honor the newborn king, Herod is of course thinking along the lines of that old saying: “Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer.” Herod figures this mysterious newborn is his enemy. His sinister plan is to bring the baby as close to him as ever he can, even into his royal embrace — and you know what would happen after that.
Like it or not, Herod is a part of the Christmas story, the real Christmas story: not the optimistic, feelgood narrative of popular culture. That alternative narrative makes room only for Santa (that right jolly old elf), his cheerful company of pint-sized toymakers and “Rudolph with his nose so bright.” What room could there possibly be in the secular narrative for one such as Herod? Nobody wants him there. His very presence would inhibit sales.
Yet, I think we all know — in this year, of all years — that the world in which we live is not all sweetness and light. Doubtless there are some here tonight who will return not to their flood-damaged homes, but to some dwelling just about as temporary as the stable in Bethlehem. Surely there are others, as well, who scrimped and saved to buy or make what Christmas presents they could, using their unemployment payments.
In a year like this, we become aware of the strange importance of keeping Herod in Christmas: for he is a reminder that the world into which the Christ-child was born is still very much in need of redemption. It’s related to that other part of the nativity story we sometimes read on the Sundays after Christmas, “Nativity, Part 2”: that encounter between Mary and the wise, old prophet Simeon — who recognizes the baby Jesus as the Messiah, but then whispers this aside to his mother: “and a sword will pierce your heart, too.”
Well, thank you, Simeon, for being Mr. Sunshine! Although, in a year like this, many of us can nod our heads in recognition at the truth of that statement — and perhaps derive some comfort from the fact that we are not alone in perceiving life’s ambiguity.
We are never alone, in fact — and that’s the whole point of this beautiful, beautiful Christmas story. The good news of Bethlehem is that the Creator of heaven and earth does not abandon us to face life’s hard times all alone. The baby, whose destiny to rule over earth and heaven was heralded by thundering battle-song of angelic armies, would ironically be haunted all his life by the Herods of this world — until that day when he would gasp out his last breath upon the cross. Such is the miracle of the Incarnation, the word-made-flesh: and such is its mystery.
The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave up his own life as a victim of Nazi persecution, put it this way: “In the child of Bethlehem, the life of the world that is to come has come into the life of the world that is.” Life comes into the darkness. That’s Christmas.
On this candlelit Christmas Eve, we become aware of the truth that, in the center of this dark world, there is invincible life. It’s the life God created at the beginning, and that goes on, as generation succeeds generation. No onslaught of death or destruction — no hurricane, no school shooter — can master it.
The poet Carl Sandburg once remarked, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” It’s a conclusion easily drawn, by poets and romantics, from the birth of any baby, but especially so for this one: this divine child, the Son of God. This is God’s answer to the Herods of this world: a baby.
There are times we all wish God would intervene in a more spectacular way, preventing the horrific incidents that shake our faith. We earnestly desire that God would send the hurricane spinning out to sea, would jam the killer’s gun so innocent children can run away, unharmed. But this is not God’s way. For whatever reason — a reason I’m convinced we’ll never comprehend in this life, until that day we finally see as God sees — the Lord seems to hold back for a time, allowing darkness its petty triumphs.
And yet, if you and I are attentive enough, and discerning enough, if we do not quail from exercising the eye of faith, we’ll discover that God is not absent after all. For a time — sometimes, it seems, a very long time — we must wait in the darkness. Until, out of the chill embrace of the very darkness itself, a newborn baby cries. Then, we know. We know there is a power that will outlast even the ruthless reign of Herod.
Such is the message of Christmas: not light without limit, but a dappled light, a shadowed light, a light kindled somewhere far distant from anything we know and experience. It is the light from a hanging oil lamp in a Bethlehem stable; the light passed from candle to candle in a darkened sanctuary; the light that blazes brightly in our hearts as we hear the baby’s cry.
Years ago, G.K. Chesterton wrote a homely little poem called “The House of Christmas.” I’d like to share the concluding portion of that poem with you, now:
This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
Whatever home you have to return to tonight, or even if you have no home at all, know that your true home is just outside that soft circle of light within the Bethlehem stable, as you kneel beside the shepherds — and, who knows, maybe even a redeemed soldier or two from Herod’s army as well, who have cast their swords to the ground and fallen to their knees.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.