December 22 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Isaiah 7: 13-15, Matthew 1: 18-25
Today is our fourth Sunday in Advent and in just two days, we will celebrate Christmas Eve. We have slowly been making our way through some of the wonderful readings of the prophet Isaiah, listening to his writings about the hopes and dreams of the people of his day waiting for a Messiah to come to them, a Savior, a source of hope and light to bring healing and hope to the people. We have also read portions of Matthew and Luke’s Gospel as they share the few stories in the Gospels about the birth of Jesus and the story of his lineage and of his parents. For most of us, these are very familiar texts and they help to center us in this season of hope and joy. We are called to imagine how these readings, written so long ago, speak to us in the midst of our lives, speak to us in the midst of the realities of our lives, now, in this time. What are the hopes and fears of all the years that have come together for us in this moment as we grapple with the deepest meanings of a Creator who chose to come among us in the form of a baby, born to a humble family in the simplest of circumstances. What are the essential pieces of the message of this Jesus that have helped to guide our own lives, inspire us, console us, challenge us and lead us to a path of spiritual meaning and closer connection with one another and with our community of brothers and sisters in our world and all of creation? Let us pray, O Holy One, we ask that you inspire us this day and the days ahead as we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace. Be with us and bless us, whatever our hopes and fears, anxieties and sorrows of this time may be. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
There is a book by Gayle Boss titled, All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings. Like the title suggests, it is an Advent devotional. Each chapter describes the way an animal adapts to winter—with the loss of heat and light. One chapter speaks of the life cycle of a firefly. Did you know that the common Eastern firefly dies off every year? But, in a sense, their little lights never cease. Because a firefly egg, buried deep in the ground, gives off a faint glow. And after only two weeks it will hatch and the little red larvae will radiate a soft constant glow. Far beneath our feet, they have spent the winter months crawling through the soil, eating and growing.
“When it senses it has grown fully, a larva will construct a sort of mud cave for itself in the soil. It will lie in the cave, glowing and still, while every part of its body melts and is remade. It will have crawled through the dark earth for more than three hundred days to be made ready for a transformation that happens in ten or twelve. A new creature, nothing like a worm, will push out of its cave, dig, and break above ground. It will rest a moment and breathe, then rise on fresh wings, its light, long hidden, released to dance through the wide nights of summertime.”
This quiet and persistent light of the firefly is something like the peaceful joy we celebrate on this fourth Sunday of Advent. We celebrate God’s light and love, soft and persistent, “radiating love to all the earth.” We celebrate God’s peace and we anticipate how it might be manifest in the world.
It may be challenging to believe that God would come to this world, to be with us. Harder still to believe that God would come to us as a baby. No wonder then, that an angel visits Joseph in his dreams to show Joseph how the Messiah would be born into the world. “Do not be afraid,” says the angel, and yet, there is much to be afraid of! The nine months of pregnancy allows plenty of opportunity for feelings of fear and anxiety to take residence in hopeful parents. In this time of transition, this time of gestation, God sends a messenger of peace. The peace God offers, peaceful joy is deep and wide, nudging its way through our lives and occasionally bursting forth in radiant light.
We know that we have a very limited sense of Mary and Joseph in these readings of the birth of Jesus. We aren’t provided with an in-depth character analysis of who they are in the fullness of their lives. We can guess about their fears, their hopes, their anxieties living in those times, a humble Jewish family in a time of Roman occupation. We might imagine this young woman, Mary, having to travel just before the expected arrival of her baby. Or her husband, worried about the shame that might come to them given the unique circumstances of this pregnancy. Madeleine L’Engle wrote a poem entitled “Young Mary” that provides an image of how Mary may have felt…she writes,
“I know not all of that which I contain. I’m small; I’m young,
I fear the pain. All is surprise: I am to be a mother.
That Holy Thing within me and no other is Heaven’s King
whose lovely Love will reign. My pain, his gaining
my eternal gain. My fragile body Holds Creation’s Light;
its smallness shelters God’s unbounded might. The Angel came
and gave, did not explain. I know not all of that which I contain.”
We live in anxious times as so many have done throughout the ages. There is fear of what may unfold, fear of the other, whether among nations or within nations; there is fear for our nation and there are the personal fears, the anxieties, the worries that creep into our hearts and make a home there. Jesus so often would greet his friends and those who came out to hear him speak with a message of peace. Again and again, he would say, I bring you peace; my peace I leave with you. This peace is somewhere deep within each of us waiting to be heard. This peace may be found in the quiet of a walk in the woods or on the beach or in our times of prayer and meditation. It may seem elusive, but it is there, much like the light of that firefly, perhaps buried deep, but there, if we only take the time to open ourselves to it, to quiet the voices of doubt and fear, to reach out with a hand of peace, even to those with whom we have conflicts, and to find a better way.
The invitation today to embrace peaceful joy brings balance to what feels out-of-sorts in the world. In a world that so often feels scary, peaceful joy speaks words of comfort. In a world that values strength and fortitude, peaceful joy portrays vulnerability. In a world full of kings and rulers fighting for power, peaceful joy is born in the form of a warm, vulnerable baby.
Yesterday, December 21was the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, both the longest night and the shortest day of the year – and the official first day of winter. Solstice celebrations are some of the oldest holidays in human history, going back at least 30,000 years. Many ancient stone structures were built with the solstices in mind; Stonhenge, for example, is designed to receive the first rays of midwinter sun. Some of our ancient ancestors built bonfires on the winter solstice, in part, it is thought, to lure the sun back after so many months of waning light. I imagine that these bonfires may have also been a way to deal with the fear of darkness on the shortest days of the year. Various festivals of light followed from those bonfires, all the way down to the custom today of decorating houses and trees with Christmas lights. The solstice is the pivot point, the beginning of the return of the sun: the daylight of today, December 22 will last a couple of minutes longer than the daylight of yesterday.
Throughout Advent we have looked to heaven and nature for metaphors to help us pray. In this, we simply become more aware of our connection to God, the source of Joy, the source of Peace… and this is a form of prayer. So let us discover some time for “quiet joy”—a time of silence this day for contemplating these questions:
How can we take a deep breath and, like Joseph, be open to discover what may be an unexpected gift in the midst of a difficult situation?
What will help us choose peace and serenity instead of joining chaos when we encounter it?
How are we contributing to chaos instead of the reign of truth and grace?
Who in your life or community needs the presence of peaceful joy and the spirit of Christ?
In the stillness of a moment, may we listen to the peace of the newborn Christ, bubbling up, breaking forth, shining light across the heavens and bringing light to our days. May we nurture that peace, embrace it and share it in the days ahead. May it be so…
 Gayle Boss, All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2016), kindle location 570 of 779.