The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice

Tuesday, December 22, 2009  

Darkness on the Edge of Town

My sermon from our Longest Night service:

Grace to you all and peace at this turning of the seasons.

What people have come to call the first Christmas was really not the sort of thing to celebrate. Here was an unmarried teenage mother, giving birth and recovering from labor in unsanitary and dangerous conditions. Her fiancee is a skilled laborer. Their child would not have many prospects for what we would call social mobility.

The child himself was just another son of the faceless, nameless poor. His chances of surviving to his fifth birthday, much less a ripe old age, were not good. His access to education, travel, or any of the better things in life would be limited at best. And no matter how long he lived or how far he traveled, he would be the subject of a foreign power.

The shepherds in the fields were no better off. As shepherds they were literally and figuratively on the margins of their world. Living with animals made them unclean. They were probably illiterate. Their skills did not exactly protect them from downturns in the global sheep economy. They were the local yokels in a sleepy part of a giant empire.

The idea that this squalid scene would be commemorated by purchasing 40” Samsung LCD HDTVs, only $699.99 at Best Buy, would have been incomprehensible to the people involved. It would have made no sense at all on any level. They were cold and dirty and tired. Mary was surely relieved and overjoyed at the safe birth of her son, but she was probably not feeling blessed and highly favored, as she was later called. They had no idea what was next.

And yet. The shepherds hear good news of great joy from a divine messenger. They have a glorious vision on the hillside. They go with haste to the side of this latest addition to the human comedy, in his royal manger. And they rejoice.

In Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard writes that when a man says he’s lost his faith, he has usually just arrived at the point where faith has become possible. It’s when there seems to be no evidence of anything ultimately good underneath it all; when there is no sign of a beating heart inside the skin and bones of this cold world; when truth and beauty and justice finally seem like little stories we tell ourselves to keep from shrieking in frustration--it’s at that moment that the good news and the great joy become possible. The messenger and the sign in the heavens didn’t appear in the great houses of Jerusalem, or in the royal court. They appeared to people who had no other hope in this world. The people for whom life worked just fine--they stayed in their warm homes. They left this great treasure to the people outside who had nowhere to lay their heads.

As it was back then, so it is even now. This might be a season for draining our bank accounts and polishing ourselves to a shine for the sake of celebration; it might be a season for parties and laughter and family. But the secret of Christmas is that it still belongs to the shepherds. The lonely and depressed, the forsaken and grieving, the poor and outcast, the desperate--Christmas is for you. The insomniacs, the angry, the heartbroken, this is for you. The disappointed and oppressed and exhausted and the homeless. There is no other route to the manger and to the divine child. As it was back then, so it is even now. Peace on earth, good will to men; a glimpse of the cold world’s still-beating heart in that Bethlehem stable. One dark night, cold, endless night at a time, the world gains entry to that unconquerable light.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:21 PM
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