Christmas simply has to happen at night, doesn’t it?
Daylight won’t work. Christmas is a feast of the night. A festival kept amidst deep darkness. A whispered story. A story secret and bright. A shining story. A tale begun in darkness ending in the darkness leading to a cross . A cross that destroys darkness for all eternity in the brilliance of resurrection light. But this is the night on which it begins. This is the start of the journey. There is excitement. Fear. Hope. Anticipation. Joy. Mystery. We are ready.
That’s why we have come. That’s why, however muddled or tired or harassed, we come to this place to hear the story again. It is why, despite the pressure of events or the depths of our loneliness, we know that this place has the power to say something about our lives. Something that will break through our own darkness. Something hinting at the thread of love binding earth to heaven. It’s not Christmas if you don’t come to church. Christmas is where the light begins.
Many of you know I spent some of October in Israel. It was my first visit to that land. Part of our time was spent visiting sacred places. We quickly discovered that almost everything in Israel seems to have happened in caves. First century people lived in caves because it was easier to make houses that way. It meant that part of the excavation was already done. All the owner had to do was build the front. So most of the churches built over sacred sites are constructed over the caves of people’s lives. Caves, of course, are dark places. Places where lives happen.
The Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem is no exception. Entering through a tiny door constructed by the crusaders to prevent sudden enemy attacks, the pilgrim emerges to stand in an Byzantine basilica, a rectangular hall, a church. To the right of the altar are steps leading below ground and under the altar to a cave. It is the cave of the birth of our Lord. Dark and sooty from centuries of candles and lamps, a golden star is set in marble over the place of Jesus’ birth. Christians kneel wonderingly and silently before the star, timidly laying their hands in its center. They are touching the rock where by tradition Jesus came into this world. The rock is worn smooth as glass where longing hands have touched where the Christ first came to his people. Where God entered our story in time and space. Where love came to be with us for all time.
The group with which I was traveling was in Israel on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury. For this reason the group was sent to the desperate, crushingly crowded, poverty stricken Gaza: one million people clinging to life on a narrow strip of land jammed between a barbed wire frontier and the ocean. There we visited a tiny Anglican hospital—a hospital serving the poor of Gaza. A hospital of 80 beds that had tended 500 a day during the entifada. Now it was to be closed because the United Nations would no longer subsidize its work. They didn’t have the million dollars they need to stay open.
It was a very humble hospital. Plaster peeled from the walls. A single elevator. An intensive care unit of primitive proprtions by American standards. But there was love in that place. Caring and healing for the sick.
Just as we arrived, a baby was born. We were invited into the recovery room. The baby lay swaddled in a towel on a shelf by the window. His mother lay calmly nearby. The father stood by his child. They seemed confused by the sudden appearance of this crowd of foreigners. We crowded into that minute room and looked upon the face of the tiny Palestinian boy born to a people who could offer nothing but love amidst great suffering, instability, and poverty.
It was the nativity. Rejoicing parents confused by the sudden arrival of complete strangers. Strangers who stood shyly in the doorway with tears in their eyes. Tears of joy and tears of pain. Tears of hope and tears of helplessness. We were gazing on the face of the infant Jesus.
In that shabby room love was born once more. God came again. Love encountered so profoundly that two members of the group donated the million dollars needed by the hospital. It didn’t have to close after all. So that love could go on being born and healing the world in Gaza. And those of us who didn’t have a million dollars to give were caught up by the beauty and power of a God who is among us. We were in another dark cave where the sharp rock of life was worn smooth by love.
Christ is born. The darkness quakes before the Glory of the Lord, revealed in the child in the manger. The dark cave of the Nativity is lit by the brilliance of Resurrection. God is with us. Our tears are turned into joy.