Christmas Eve Meditation

Date: December 24, 2016
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

Having trouble playing the audio? download the mp3


Sometimes all it takes is for one person to have the good sense to bring some light. Someone lit an oil lamp long ago, in that darkened room where Mary labored. It may have been Joseph or the midwife who helped Mary give birth to her firstborn son and wrap him in swaddling cloths.

Luke doesn’t mention a midwife or a lamp, just the light of the heavenly host who appeared in the sky out in the fields. Matthew, the other gospel writer who tells a Christmas story, doesn’t mention a lamp either, just the light of the star that hung over the place where Jesus lay. We love the details of those divine angels and stars, but what Mary really needed was something else. There she was, giving birth in the deep of night. I’m not sure she really needed angels or shepherds or lowing cattle or any of those other details Matthew and Luke and Christmas carols include. What she did need was strength and courage and encouragement and stamina and, yes, a lamp to light the way of Jesus’ coming.     

We are here tonight to celebrate his coming, to remember his birth so long ago. The story is familiar and beloved. It is the stuff of Claymation holiday specials and children’s pageants – sheep and stars and kings and halos. And yet, if we strip this story of all its beloved details, we are left simply with a birth, which really is the point of it all. Can we celebrate the birth of Jesus without all the delightful, endearing details? Is the fact that Jesus was born enough?

I think the birth is enough. In fact, I think it is quite a lot, the birth of Jesus.

You could say that all births are quite a lot. A member of this congregation who is a recently retired labor-and-delivery nurse told me that of the hundreds of births she attended, 99% of the time, the husband or the boyfriend or the girlfriend or whoever was there helping the mother cried when the baby was born. It is quite a lot, birth.

Birth can also be risky, for a mother or for a child. Especially in olden days, a birth at night presented its own kind of challenge – neighbors who might help were sound asleep and would need to be wakened. Oil lamps needed to be filled in advance. And those little lamps, while helpful, really weren’t that powerful. A good midwife would have to stay on her toes, lighting and easing the way as the baby was born.

Nowadays instead of lighting an oil lamp, someone might hold a flashlight in her teeth to help with a birth, and recently I heard a wonderful story about just that.

It goes back a little ways, to the early 1950s, when our friends Caroline and Jane Kurtz moved with their parents to Ethiopia so their father Harold, a Presbyterian minister, could do mission work. The family spent many years in the town of Maji, accessible by a two-day mule ride from the nearest city or flight in a small plane, given decent weather conditions and a runway clear of livestock.

The Kurtz family left Ethiopia in the 1970s but they never forgot that place or the people there. The now-adult children have continued the work their parents began, establishing libraries in remote areas and creating books for early readers.

When Caroline and Jane asked their friends in Maji about providing light for a school, they were told of a different need. The town has no electricity and will not be getting electricity in the foreseeable future. The local health clinic has a generator which it uses for true necessities and emergencies, but that’s it. When a woman goes into labor and gives birth at night, the only light available has been a flashlight that is held in the midwife’s teeth. If the mother and child are both in trouble in the middle of the night, there is only light for one of them.

So through some excellent use of imagination and brains, through fundraising and travel, relying on friendships and goodwill and relationships forged decades ago, last November Caroline bought a solar panel in the capital city of Addis Ababa, and brought it, and a certified solar panel technician, to Maji.

The technician installed the panel on the corrugated tin roof of the clinic and ran wires to four lights in the ceiling of the space which doubles as the birthing center. Now if a woman gives birth at night, there is enough light for her, and the baby, and the midwife.

Ever since I heard this story, it has felt like more than just happy news for pregnant women. It has felt like an invitation to do the same sort of thing. I think God may be calling me – and you too – to bring light to the good that is being born in the world.

This has been a year that has felt lightless to many. We continue to be pierced by the news and images coming out of Syria. Every day we read of violence, in Ankara and Berlin and Zurich, and too many other places. Many are still numb after the election. We struggle to find a long-term response to the issues facing our city. We have lost beloved friends. Night has fallen. There are days when it feels as though the blackout curtains have been drawn, and the dawn is far off.

A few weeks ago many of us lost power because of a winter storm. The absence of twinkling Christmas lights and the usual street lamps, added to an overcast sky, made for a dark night. Inside our homes we heard none of the usual whir of things and furnaces never kicked on. Some found it peaceful; some found it unsettling.

But if you lost power like we did, maybe you too got out your phone and turned on its flashlight. Or maybe you had a real flashlight at the ready and used that. Maybe you lit a fire in your fireplace, and the darkness and the cold were dispelled.

Someone lights an oil lamp. Someone lights a candle. Someone carries a solar panel across Ethiopia and we realize that light that shines in the darkness is the most powerful light of all.

That is what God promised us in the birth of Jesus: light that would shine through all the shadows and fog we endure in this life. In the darkness of the late night we begin to see a hint of dawn on the horizon, and maybe that is a metaphor for us and helps us to understand that in the darkness and in the light there is this God who is with us and who loves us. This God who loves us once came to us as a wee baby. And now it feels as though God who loves us is handing out matches and flashlights and saying to us go, shine light on this:

    Shine light on hope.
    Shine light on generosity.
    Shine light on welcome.     
    Shine light on justice.
    Shine light on healing.
    Shine light on forgiveness.
    Shine light on peace.
    Shine light on miracles.

Shine light on the good that is being born into the world even while so much is overwhelming.

I love Christmas Eve. I am grateful that you all are here. I deeply care for some of you, and I’ve never met some of you, yet, strangers and friends, we’re all here this night, singing together and breaking bread together. In a little bit we will light candles together, and if it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness, then imagine what lighting hundreds of candles might do.

My hope for all of us is that we will leave this place and go on about our lives in the coming weeks, seeking what is good, and doing what is good, and bringing light once more into the world. My hope is that we will make these words as true today as they were the night Jesus was born: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overwhelm it.

To the glory of God.