By Matthew Harper, incarcerated in a Virginia state prison
(EDITOR'S NOTE: What follows is a sermon for December 21st, the longest night of the year. On this night many churches have a "Longest Night" service for those who are struggling to find joy this Christmas, often due to grief. This sermon was shared at St. David's Episcopal Church, Richmond Virginia, in 2017.)
The longest night of the year. A time when darkness comes early and stays late, when night feels unexpected and interminable. Tonight we gather to acknowledge that darkness, and to dwell in it quietly; we know it exists, and it's okay that it does. "Merry Christmas" may not feel all that 'Merry,' but it is Christmas and we know the light of dawn is just over the horizon.
At no time more than Advent is our church year so in conflict with society. While we are focusing on our journey, studying, fasting and praying our way towards joy, the world is already obsessed with presents and decorations. Christians are forever citizens of two worlds, with a foot in each, and tonight those worlds are so far apart we are forced to do the splits.
A world that celebrates Christmas too early also forgets it too quickly. Christians are contrary because we want to be in tune with the deeper rhythms of God's movements. We move more slowly because we believe our journey matters. We make room for struggles and grief. We know that to get to joy some years you need a running start.
It takes bravery to seek joy. But let's be honest, who really wants to be brave? This is my 19th Christmas in prison. I have experienced great joy, but I've also had it up to here with bravery. This is a night for humility and vulnerability, for trust and faith. Hope is present; bravery can take a hike.
Our scriptures remind us how "the heavens declare the glory of God," and tonight speaks to that truth. Observations of the Longest Night are a Northern European tradition older than Christianity. In the cold and the dark people gathered together as a community to witness the turning of darkness into light. They were clinging to a sign of hope God has written into creation itself. Today we are a part of that heritage as we use an evergreen tree, poinsettias, mistletoe, and candles. Each one is a powerful symbol of light and life amidst the cold and dark. Tonight is a turning point. Life has not been extinguished, and dawn is just over the horizon.
For me Christmas has always been the most amazing and strange point of history. God, creator of all the heavens and earth, chooses to forsake that power and glory to be born an infant. It's an idea bizarre beyond imagining, but what seems too good to be true God did; and did it out of love.
God became totally and fully human. All of the wonder, pain and glory of our humanity God knows intimately. From a baby nursing and soiling himself to a man hanging naked on a cross, betrayed by some and abandoned by most, there is no pain of vulnerability Christ is not intimate with. Intimate. Christ knows, and Christ knows us.
That first Christmas didn't look all that glorious. A teenage girl, pregnant before wedlock, far from home and without the comfort of a mother or midwife, is in labor. She trusted in God without knowing God's plan, and now she was delivering a baby late at night in a cattle-shed. Mary suffered in her life. She persevered not because she was brave or stoic, but because she put her full faith and trust in what God was doing. She gave birth to Jesus, an act of human intimacy with God that is without parallel, and traveled with him throughout his ministry. She wrapped him in his swaddling clothes, and in his death shroud. No human has known Jesus so well. Perhaps none experienced as much pain at the crucifixion, or as deep a joy at resurrection.
We look back at Christmas now and our eyes are guided to see to glory. We know the love, trust, and sacrifice. Looking through the eyes of the Holy Spirit and the eyes of the church we are able to see and experience the joy. But we need help. Sometimes we need more than our own eyes to see the dawn.
I grew up reciting Psalm 23. It was reassuring to know that God was with me during my times of trial. Prison is clearly a valley in the shadow of death, but so too is all of life. Our hearts are heavy tonight with grief for people we have lost. All of us will die, it is the only certainly of life - nobody gets out alive. What isn't certain is how we will live, how we will love, and how we will be loved. Our grief tonight is the cost of love shared. Love that was, and is, a gift. Grief is a price worth paying.
And grief is not forever.
Reading Isaiah this month we hear God's promises, God's unfolding plan. "No eye has seen" the joys of heaven, God promised us on week one. In our struggles we need comfort, and on the second week of Advent we heard the powerful words to be comforted. We are God's people, and we can be comforted because God is at work. Last week we heard a favorite reading of the parish in here, where God promises freedom for prisoners. I can tell you freedom sounds good, and would make my Christmas a lot more joyful, but freedom by itself is only a beginning.
Christ's birth is all about freedom, for all of us, but not freedom as the world knows it. It isn't a freedom FROM, it is a freedom FOR. We are set free to live, and love, and hope. We are set free to be transformed by the power of Amazing Grace. We are a people of the dawn, a people reborn with a sure and certain hope.
Our new life hasn't shielded us from the effects of sin in the world. We get sick and suffer hurt. We do awful things. I'm still in prison and people I love still die. My prayers don't get answered the way I want, and even the church can throw my life into a tailspin. It's okay to admit it, to question God, and to struggle.
It's also okay to trust. To hope when hope seems beyond reach, and to love the unlovable.
Paul's Epistles remind me to rejoice in my suffering. Well I don't want to suffer, but I do, and when I suffer I choose to draw closer to God and my community. I can run away and hide, it's tempting, but I don't. I try to remain humble and vulnerable, I open myself to love. I keep trusting in a God that loved me enough to be born and be with me. That's what my rejoicing looks like.
We are set free by God to love and serve. We are set free by the love of God to live in a fullness of joy that transcends happiness and sorrow. In joy there is room for both, but neither of them is the point. The point is that you are God's child. You are intimately known, and intimately loved. Be comforted, you are the beloved of God.
I do not pray to be free from all pain. I do pray, for all of us, to be always aware of the God who is here. The world has hurt me and my sins have left me destitute. I walk through the shadow of this valley of death, one hand in Christ's own, the other held by the church. A God always present, who knows our pain and loves us enough to dwell here too. A God who has walked this path, and can guide and comfort us.
One of my favorite Advent prayers reminds us our joy is shared with those in heaven: "All those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater lights that multitude which no one can number, and whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one." (Advent Bidding Prayer, Episcopal Book of Occasional Services, 2003.)
God is present, and so too in God are present all those souls already gathered home. We are not alone, we are not abandoned, we are beloved.
There is room for grief at Christmas, room for struggles and broken hearts. But we will not be overcome. We know that all of our broken spaces will be made whole because they will be filled with the presence and love of the Holy Spirit. God is so big our hearts will have to constantly be broken open and remade to make room. We trust God enough to walk that road.
No matter how long the night, dawn is coming and we are children of the light. We know God is at work, and that one day, when we will be able to see it in its fullness, we will rejoice. For now we trust, and choose to live in hope.
"Merry Christmas!" The world yells it at us at every chance. Sometimes we're merry, sometimes not so much, but one thing we know and cling to: "Christ is born, Hallelujah!"