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Twilight

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Dec 29

 The First Sunday of Christmas

Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23

Twilight: A time of pause when nature changes her guard.

All living things would fade and die from too much light or too much dark,

if twilight were not.

-- Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman

 

           So it’s the fifth day of Christmas … almost midway through the journey from Christmas to Epiphany.  If you can’t remember how many drummers drumming or maids a’milking there are, then at least you know that today’s gift is “five golden rings!”  Even though it’s only the fifth day of Christmas, I’ve heard a number of people say that Christmas is over – celebrations completed, after-Christmas sales in full swing.  There are decorations and dishes to pack away.  The grocery store shelves have begun to stock Valentine’s Day cards and candy. 

            But the church is not on the same schedule as the rest of the world.  In the church, it is still very definitely Christmas.  In fact, tradition has it that the Magi, the Wise Men won’t even arrive at the stable until January 6th.  There is a lot of Christmas left, which is a good thing, because I don’t think we can go instantaneously from the darkest of the darkness into the brightest light of God’s love.  As Howard Thurman reminds us, we need the twilight.  We need the slow dawning of a new day.  Living things need the gentle transition from the darkness into the light. 

            When Dan asked me if I would lead worship this morning, on this day after Christmas, I said yes before I looked at the lectionary texts.  I saw that it was my least favorite of the Christmas texts.  So do I abandon the lectionary and choose a different gospel reading?  When I mentioned to a colleague this week that I was preaching today, he asked – with a knowing smile -- whether I was going to preach on the Matthew text.  None of us really wants to.

            The story is like many of the classic movies – there’s a bad part that leads to a good part.  Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer is about an awkward guy who ends up saving the day.  It’s a Wonderful Life is about a man contemplating suicide.  The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is about … well, the Grinch.  Even Frosty the Snowman melts.  The stories all have their bad parts, but we forget those.  It is the good parts that stay with us – the celebration of life, the saving the holiday, the promise to be “back again someday.”

            Likewise I would rather skip over our gospel reading for this Sunday after Christmas.  I’ll be honest with you.  I don’t like Matthew’s Christmas story nearly as well as Luke’s.  I don’t relate to the three kings as much as I relate to the shepherds.  The story feels more familiar from Mary’s perspective, rather than through Joseph’s dreams.  If it’s Christmas, I like to have angels singing in the sky.  Besides, babies don’t need gold, frankincense and myrrh.  I’d rather not focus on the fear that motivates Joseph to pack up and escape to Egypt.  Furthermore, the part about Herod ordering a systematic massacre doesn’t seem appropriate to read with children in the room.  I certainly don’t want it to ruin my Christmas.

            I don’t know if it makes it any easier to know that the so-called “slaughter of the innocents” probably didn’t really happen.  Biblical scholars think this for two reasons.  First, there was a first-century historian named Josephus who wrote extensively about what was happening in the world in exactly these years.  Much of what he wrote is consistent with the historical people and places and years mentioned by biblical writers.  Josephus mentions all sorts of horrible things that Herod did to members of his own family, as well as the Jewish High Priest, and members of the religious establishment.  He protected his power with fear and intimidation and brutality.  He certainly could have done something like this – it would be in keeping with the way he used (and abused) his power.  But Josephus the historian never mentions it.  And it seems almost certain that he would have mentioned it if it had happened. 

            The other reason that biblical scholars don’t think that Herod ordered the killing of the male infants is that Matthew works so very hard to pattern his story after the Hebrew Scriptures and the story of Moses and the pharaoh in Egypt.  In Exodus, since the pharaoh ordered that all Hebrew baby boys be killed, so Matthew writes that Herod did the same in his day.  This story is in all likelihood a piece of theological fiction, inserted by Matthew to emphasize his point that the birth of Jesus was foretold not only by the prophets, but by the biblical story of the Exodus as well.

            So, why read something so disturbing if it’s probably not true?  Why don’t we just skip it?  For one thing, it’s certainly foreshadowing.  When Jesus is in the prime of his ministry, Herod will again try to kill him.  But we’re not there yet.  Much happens between Jesus’ birth and death, between infancy and adulthood, between Christmas and Easter.

            I remember one grandmother in my NH congregation who brought her young 3 or 4-year-old granddaughter with her to church on Christmas and then again, a few months later, on Easter.  In the middle of the Easter sermon, little Megan whispered to her grandmother, “Grandma, why did they kill the baby Jesus?”  Grandma realized that Megan needed Sunday School, to learn the stuff between Christmas and Easter – Jesus’ life and ministry and what Christian faith is all about.

            What about us?  Are we willing to look closely at Jesus’ life and ministry – the stuff between Christmas Day and Easter morning?  And, more importantly, are we willing and able to do what Jesus did with his life?  Will we reach out and touch people, pray with them and heal them?  Will we welcome people that others would turn away?  Will we feed the hungry?  Will we shelter the homeless? 

            The timing of the Christmas season right at the darkest point of the year (at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere) is not an accident.  For as long as there has been humanity, there have been celebrations at that darkest time of the year.  The Mesopotamians, the Romans, the Druids at Stonehenge.  As December deepens, the light seems to be disappearing.  For us, here in Cambridge, at the beginning of Advent, we were losing as much as a minute and a half of light each day until we were down to 9 hours, 4 minutes and 34 seconds of daylight on December 21st.  And then, on December 21st, the losses stopped.  The sun stood still – “sol” means sun and “stice” comes from the word that means “stop”.  Solstice – the sun stands still.

            We begin to gain light … not even noticeably, since the 22nd has only 2 seconds more of light than the previous day.  However, each day adds a bit more, as the returning light gains momentum.  It’s both change and rate of change, velocity and acceleration.   It’s not until Epiphany, January 6th, that our days actually increase by a whole minute at a time, and will continue to grow longer faster and faster, until in March, we’ll add almost 3 minutes of daylight every day.  Then, at the vernal equinox, the rate of change will begin to slow down and reverse.  Each season, we don’t go from long nights to long days right away. 

            Also each day, the return of the light is not a sudden blast of light, but a gradual awakening that begins 2 hours before sunrise.    Did you know that there are three kinds of twilight?  Astronomical twilight begins when the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon, about an hour and 45 minutes before sunrise, and lasts the same amount of time after sunset.  Nautical twilight begins at 12 degrees, a bit more than an hour before sunrise, and Civil twilight is 6 degrees, or about 35 minutes before.  Every 24 hours, we spend about one-sixth of each day in what is technically called twilight.

            Likewise, our understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ light in the world is not complete in one Christmas Eve moment when the light comes to shine in the darkness.  During the increasing darkness, during Advent, we have had a good, festive, tradition-filled month together.  But if Advent is the beginning, then today we embark on the real thing.  And if this year is like any other year, the light will dawn on us slowly, gaining a bit of insight and understanding each day.  What will we learn about our faith and ourselves this year?

            If we are to take this Christian story of ours seriously, we must begin to realize that we’re not just dealing with the sweet baby Jesus, lying in a manger gazing adorably at his parents.  We’re not dealing with – as the second verse of “Away in a Manger” suggests -- the silent baby Jesus, but with our trouble-making, eats-with-sinners, heals-on-the-sabbath, table-turning itinerant rabbi.  Jesus came to challenge the world and the powers that be.  Jesus came to challenge us.  We can’t come and sit in the beautiful sanctuary and enjoy the carols and the coffee hours and think that we’re done.  To be the church we must be God’s people here in Cambridge and in the world, for we’re dealing with nothing less than the awesome power of God.

            We celebrate Christmas with generosity.  We collect gifts for those who are struggling.  We reach out to neighbors we sometimes don’t even talk to at other times of the year.  We live with grace and kindness, offering an extravagant welcome into our homes and our lives.  That was the first day of Christmas.  How will we live on the second, third, fourth and fifth? 

            In my work as a consultant to churches, it seems like many churches are asking this question.  Not how to deal with the busy festive season of Advent and the feast days of Christmas and Easter, but all of the in-between times, when there’s not a big holiday, and perhaps not as much going on.  Are the in-between times the problem?  Or are they the solution?

            Howard Thurman suggests that these in-between times are necessary for our survival.  We need to face the darkness and learn to live in the light.  But too much darkness or too much light is not healthy.  This twilight time is a necessity, while “nature changes her guard.”  I know that a group of people have been reading Howard Thurman  recently.  He was the Boston University chaplain who also wrote a poem that is commonly used as a benediction at this time of year:

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the Kings and Princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flocks,

The work of Christmas begins.

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry

To release the prisoner,

To teach the nations,
To bring Christ to all,

To make music in the heart.

This is an agenda that is much longer than any shopping list for Christmas.  The work of Christmas is just beginning?  After the Christmas rush, don’t we need to slow down, relax, take it easy?  It’s a little like having a baby – you rush to get things done, find a crib, paint the baby’s room, buy the clothes, get the diapers ready.  The day and the baby finally arrive.  But then the work begins – the loving, the caring, the feeding, the figuring out how to help the baby grow into a kind, generous, thoughtful, strong child and young adult.  It changes your life. 

            It’s similar in any life change – a new job or a new home brings new routines, new friends, new challenges.  As we ring in a new year this week, I invite you to pray for our church.  Pray about your part in it.  Pray about your faith.  Add in your hopes and your dreams.  Name your fears.  And then, listen and watch:

  • Listen to the songs of the angels. 
  • Watch the light coming back into the world. 
  • Listen to the whispering of the crowds. 
  • Watch for the twinkling of the stars. 
  • Listen to the cry of a newborn. 
  • Watch the delight on the faces of those whom you love. 
  • Listen for God’s word to you. 

Instead of Christmas being over, it has just begun.  For that, we give God thanks and praise!  Amen.

 

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