Sermon Delivered on Christmas Eve 2016
by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
Church of the Intercession, NYC
It’s a wonderful night, isn’t it? Take a look around you this evening – just look at our church. Look at the candles up and down the nave, here in the chancel, up in the sanctuary. Even though it is deep in the evening, the church is filled with light. Look at the beautiful flowers, all the poinsettias, the trees, the wreaths, the greens. And of course look at our beautiful church building, built of the finest materials by the most skilled artisans in the world over a hundred years ago, a house of God and for God built to glorify God. Last but not least, look at all of you, come here through the darkness to this place of light, all dressed up for the occasion.
We’re not the only ones to have gotten gussied up for Christmas – across our city there are window displays, street hangings, Christmas lights strung around trees and houses and restaurants and stores. Between them travel snazzily dressed folks going from store to store, party to party, home to home, all to celebrate the birth of one baby born in a stable in one dark corner of the world about 2000 years ago – Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, son of God, the Christ, the Messiah, our Savior.
Now most of you know that I was born Jewish. Of course, our family celebrated Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights – which begins tonight by the way – but we weren’t the kind of Jewish family who put Hanukkah into direct competition with Christmas, we didn’t have a Hanukkah bush or anything like that. We would take a yearly holiday-season drive around Fair Lawn where we lived, to see the beautiful Christmas decorations (my Mom particularly loved this) – that was our nod to Christmas, but otherwise we stuck to dreidls and chocolate Hanukkah gelt and of course lighting the menorah every night, all of the candles lit at sundown from the center candle for all eight nights of the holiday. That center candle is called the “shammas” – and shammas in Hebrew means servant – because it’s the candle that serves all the others. In fact in the Jewish Temple the priest who lit all the candles was called the “shammas.”
I find it odd that here in church we do the opposite with our candles in the Advent wreath – we light our center candle, called the Christ candle last – on Christmas, so throughout the Advent season it remains dark, waiting for its moment to shine. This has always felt wrong to me – in fact it feels so wrong that if you were here on the First Sunday of Advent this year I made the mistake of directing that the center candle be lit first and then the first purple candle – I had a Hanukkah relapse. Usually my Hanukkah relapse take the form of a craving for potato latkes but this year it took the form of a craving for light – a particular kind of light: light that serves other light.
Given the year we’ve had, this isn’t surprising; it’s been a dark year. I’m not only talking about physical darkness, lack of sunlight – we just passed the winter solstice so our time of sunlight as against darkness has slowly begun to increase – I’m not talking about that kind of light, I’m talking about darkness of spirit. It has been a year of vertiginous destabilization across the world – not just here in the United States – as the darker aspects of our human nature have crept out of the shadows into the glare of day.
As a result, I’ve honestly felt like I’ve been suffering from a light deficiency for about a year, and I don’t think I’m alone. We human beings need light to live – not necessarily the light of candles or electric light – we need the light of life, the light of truth, the light of God, the light of Christ – as much as we need food and water. And if we don’t get our required doses of light, we begin to suffer sickness of soul, and yes, even sickness in our bodies. We know this subconsciously because we gravitate towards light sources. We love these candles so much not only because we see by them but because we feel a kinship to their flame, knowing instinctively that we share something with them, something of the nature of God; as the First Letter of John says, God is light, and in him is darkness at all. We love the stars in the night sky, moonlight, the light of a glowing fire in a fireplace, even the light in our beloved’s eyes – all for the same reason that we string those Christmas lights wherever we can in an effort to drink of the kaleidoscopic love of God in all of its spectral glory to satisfy our need for light.
But here’s the thing: those lights are all external, and beautiful as they are, they cannot fill our hunger. Even kings have had to learn this lesson. It might surprise you to know that the first Christian nation in the world was not Rome; it was Armenia, which in the early years of Christianity sat unhappily between the two huge empires of Rome and Persia. Armenia flirted with Christianity for a time, having been visited by some of the original apostles, but it was finally truly converted by one man known as Gregory the Illuminator who made a Christian out of the thoroughly pagan King of Armenia, and so set the precedent for Rome and many others to follow.
That’s the way that Christ is born into the world, person by person, the same way that we lit our candles here tonight – passing the light from candle to candle, flame to flame, soul to soul, heart to heart. But the light of the Christ candle isn’t always found in the prettiest of places; in fact it can often be found at its brightest in places that for all the world look dark.
Take for example, my local post office. I live near Columbia University and we have a small, dirty, badly lit, truly depressing post office that serves what has to be a hundred thousand people in the neighborhood. At this time of year, it is absolute torture to stand on an endless line of stressed and sullen people who are dragging huge packages an inch at a time up to the counter which never has more than two or three clerks working – because all the other clerks “call in sick” this time of year.
Even though I’ve lived in my neighborhood for over thirty years and I know how bad the post office is during the holidays, last week I got the bright idea to mail copies of the small book I wrote on breast cancer to local hospitals. So I dragged twenty packages of two books each to that post office in the midst of the holiday crush. I stood on the awful line for an eternity, until eventually the light lit up at Desk 6 and I trudged up to a woman clerk who was managing to look both bored and tense at the same time. She asked me the required questions of whether I was mailing anything hazardous – batteries, bombs, anthrax, etc. – I said no, these packages are the same, there’s two copies of a book I wrote on breast cancer in each. She immediately snapped awake and said, “that’s funny, someone I know was diagnosed today and she needs a mastectomy and she’s really scared and I felt so bad for her.” I told I’d drop by a copy of the book for this woman. Then a funny thing happened. As the clerk was going through my packages, weighing, noting, stamping each one, we began doing church right there at Desk 6 in the Columbia University post office.
First she said, “Mmm, mmm. By his stripes we are healed!” Amen! Then I said, “God is good!” and not only her, but also the clerk next to her called back “All the time!” And we were off to the races – we went through every healing scripture we could think of; Amen! After each one and at one point the clerk at Desk 7 started singing, “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me O Lord, standin’ the need of prayer.”
Now it would be great if the whole post office joined in – but that didn’t happen. The patrons waiting for us to finish our mini tent revival, were mostly glaring at us, but some looked curious. What I do know – definitely – is that a Christ candle was lit in that dark place that day, and only God knows how many hearts will be set ablaze by it.
My sisters and brothers, all of the light in the universe does us no good unless we shine. If the light remains outside of us and does not kindle our spirits, we may as well remain in darkness. We have one job as Christians – only one – although that one job can take many forms – and that job is to be light. We are called to be both the shamas candle, lighting the others, serving others, and the Christ candle, afire with the love of God. If we do not become like Gregory the Illuminator, unafraid to speak truth to power and feed every person no matter high and mighty the light that they so desperately need, then Christmas is nothing more than an opportunity to hang some pretty decorations, have a party and swap some gifts – all good, of course, but only a fraction of what can happen if we truly shine with God’s love.
Christmas isn’t a fantasy. It isn’t about the superficial things in life, as enjoyable as they may be, and it certainly isn’t about pretending that we’re happy when we’re not. Christmas is about intentionally embracing light within darkness, and doing the often very tough work of loving and persevering in hard times, even when it feels like the darkness is winning. As the Second Letter of Peter says, You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
My sisters and brothers, Merry Christmas, and may your shamas Christ candle always shine brightly in the darkness. Amen.