December 24, 2017 // CHRISTMAS EVE AT SALT HOUSE // Sara Wolbrecht // Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)
Well, Merry Christmas! Especially to folks watching online or listening to the podcast. Merry Christmas! Having just made our way through the Christmas gospel, and singing many of the good songs we need to sing, hang on, friends, for where we’re headed next. You see, Christmas as we know it, this remembrance and celebration of Jesus’ birth was actually not a thing for Christians until the 4th or 5th Century. Which means no Christmas parties until 400-500 years after Jesus’ birth. I know, right? Which maybe you already knew, but I found surprising when I heard it. And, as you may know, historians are pretty darn sure that Jesus was not born in December. So, why do we do it, now? This is the question I want us to dig into on this Christmas Eve. How did this holiday, this “feast” day as Christians would call their big deal party days, how did this feast of Christmas begin? And (more significantly) why did it begin, and why did Christianity decide to celebrate Christmas on December 25th, AND FINALLY what’s the universal, bigger story that that day tells us?
Can we get curious about that together? (I know you’re already thinking about Santa…). And then of course after we geek out about some history and biology and anthropology, you better believe we’ll bring it back to what it means for us here and now in this place, on this particular December 25th that we’ll all wake up to in the morning. You may already know some or all of this – to me much of it was new and energizing to hear. So if you do know this – let it refuel you (and maybe next year you’d like to do the sermon…).
To site my source in this, I have heard Alexander Shaia speak quite a bit, and much of the historical stuff I’ll share comes from him and his research.
You ready? So jump with me back to the beginnings of Christianity, after Jesus’ death. The first five centuries of Christianity is quite complex and there are many threads. I’m going to simplify and, bring it down to the core story about how Christianity developed the Feast of Christmas, which again, shockingly to us, doesn’t happen until the fourth and fifth centuries.
During the 4th and 5th centuries, Christians move beyond the geographical region of the Mediterranean, to the North of the Alps, to this new people for them, the Celts. The Celts are not just the group of people we associate, what we think of as Britain. The Celtic world went from Ireland, all the way to Turkey, but did not come below the Alps. And the most important Feast of their calendar year was the Winter Solstice – can you imagine why? Because it is dark and freezing when you live that far north! Living in the cold climate they were absolutely dependent upon the SUN. By the winter solstice they’re running low on the stores of food from the fall harvest, and Seasonal Affect Disorder – they may not have had a name for it, but it must have been a thing then, too, right? So they absolutely looked to the sun’s rebirth at the winter solstice as central to the shape of their lives. They didn’t know the science behind it, but knew that after a certain day the sun would come back. They even believed that their spiritual practices helped draw the sun back out. The Celtic culture is so driven, formed, patterned in the flow of the seasons as their life-blood. Deeply connected to the rhythms of the earth.
But Christians come out of the Mediterranean world – with lots of sun, but more importantly, they had stayed with the Hebrew calendar which was a moon calendar – this explains why Easter is not a fixed date, because it depends on the first full moon after the March equinox.
So these Christians come in, with their lunar calendar as the rhythm that guides their year and important days, they’re trying to evangelize, speak to the Celtic world about God and Jesus – and they’re having none of it. Because they’re not speaking the same language. For the Celts, what’s going on in the earth and sky and in the water is absolutely essential and interconnected to their understanding of life and practice of faith. The Celts couldn’t understand the Christian experience with a theological concept about the birth of Jesus the Christ. They kept asking: tell us how that happens in the earth! Where’s the parallel, the connection, how is the story told in the rhythms of the seasons?
And then Christians respond with a question, ok – tell us about what you celebrate. And the Celts tell about the winter solstice, and the Jesus-followers go – we know that story…in what we think of is a deeper way. You are thinking of the rebirth of the SUN, and we’re thinking of the power that’s beyond that power that brings freshness and radiance to everything in the cosmos. A power that was born in the darkness, that the whole earth now resonates with.
The connection is made between the rebirth of the SUN and the birth of Jesus – this one who is described hundreds of years earlier as the Light of the world, the one who has come to bring light in dark places.
And so the Feast of Christmas emerges as a celebration on the Winter Solstice, it emerges out of the need to tell God’s story in the midst of a new people, as part of telling the story of what is born when out of the deepest dark of the year, the light begins to return. How God is reborn, as the earth makes it’s turn into days that lengthen, and light that begins to grow. Is this not strikingly beautiful, my friends?
Yet as we know today, Christmas day, the 25th isn’t actually on the winter solstice, which is now December 21st-22nd. So if this is the origin and intention of Christmas from the Christian perspective – to be paired with the light of winter solstice, then when/how/why did that separation occur? Well, thanks for asking…
So, as they’re developing the feast of Christmas, in the 4th and 5th Centuries, they’re under the Julian Calendar. Created by Julius Caesar, in about 50 BCE. And that calendar only had 362 days in it (missing three days a year). Then fast forward to the 16th century, and December is now in the springtime, because as you go through hundreds of years and you’re missing three days out of the year…it adds up. Pope Gregory created the Gregorian calendar in the 16th Century which is a 365 days, with an occasional year a leap day thrown in.
So now there’s a problem, with this new calendar, the Winter Solstice which used to be December 25th is December 21st or 22nd.
With the winter solstice now three days before the great feast of Christmas – there was great theological debate – do we move the feast of Christmas back to the solstice (because what’s going on with the sun and the earth is important)? Or do we leave Christmas on the traditional day, the day it has been for almost a thousand years, on December 25th?
Any idea of what was chosen? But can you guess why? It is such a fabulous reason. There’s a clue. The decision was made to leave Christmas as THREE DAYS AFTER the solstice. And what in Jesus’ life do we think of when we hear three days.
Three days, Jesus was dead and in the tomb. Three days spanned the death of Good Friday to the light of resurrection on Sunday. Three days. That’s one reason. The other reason has to do with what solstice actually means. The word “solstice” means = sun stand still. Because when the sun reaches its lowest point in its daily arc across our sky, before it begins to move higher in the sky again, lengthening our days, it appears to pause. To stand still. So that actually on the day and night of the solstice, and for the two days after it, the sun seems to not move any higher for three days.
On the third day after the winter solstice the naked eye can for the first time begin to see light grow. And for that physical embodiment, experience – the church said – this is even better! It’s even better that we don’t have Christmas on exactly the day of the solstice. Christmas now in the northern hemisphere is that first moment that the naked eye can perceive that light is now growing again.
This is why the 25th of December was not reunited with the winter solstice because Christmas morning is that first moment that the naked eye can perceive that light is now growing again. I mean c’mon. How beautiful is this?
This Advent, here at Salt House, without saying it, we have been growing toward this through the sermons and practices we have shared on our Advent journey. We’ve called it Christmas Present. Trying to be people who are present in the moment. And how we do that because the present moment is where God is – the Jesus-story invites us to live in the present. And we’ve named this month how our minds are hardly ever present in the moment, but instead ping-pong between replaying the past and worrying about the future. Advent and Christmas are absolutely that way as we replay Christmases past and think ahead to shopping, and baking, and planning, and eating.
But today. Now. Here. Its Christmas. And we sit here in the afterglow of hearing the Christmas story again – a story that for most of us is very familiar. It likely is associated with memories of pictures from old story books and bibles from when we were kids, or from the time when we had the funny shepherds costume in the pageant at church. Perhaps it is even so familiar that it’s lost some of its meaning beyond being sentimental.
So the work for us to do today, the beautiful invitation, is to let this story find us here and now. To be present in the story. Yes, with Mary and Joseph by the manger. To see the light of the angels’ glory as it fades while the shepherds take off for town. And more importantly, to hear the angels’ words as true, that we’d really believe that this day there is great and joyful news for all people. No matter what box they would check, or affiliations they have, or labels we or they would give themselves. All people. But here’s the real challenge: it even includes us.
My friends, thank you for geeking out with me on the history of why Christmas is a feast on December 25th. I hope you hung in for it. Because we hear in this a powerful message. Because we’re here on Christmas, where good news of great joy is happening for us, for today is again the first moment that our eyes can perceive that light is now growing again. Which meets us at a deeper level than just our calendar, right?
Christmas – teaches us that we can know that every time in our life, our personal, and our community, and our family life – when we go to the deepest dark, that that’s where the grace of the fresh radiance will come.
Which begs of us the question, then: where in our lives do we have the deepest dark? This is my question for us this Christmas – and it ain’t rhetorical. Where in your life, your spirit, in your body, in a relationship – where is it winter solstice and the sun seems unmoving. Whether our personal, our community, our family life – where is your deepest dark?
We ask because Christmas teaches us that that is where the grace of the fresh radiance will come. Christmas teaches us this, because, the Jesus story teaches us this. In innumerable ways Jesus’ life is a story of light beginning to grow again in places of deepest dark. And that story of Jesus begins here, where there isn’t a space in town except hanging out in the barn with the animals. Where shepherds are chosen as the first witnesses to Jesus’ birth. Shepherds were the lowest tear on the social ladder. They literally slept on the ground with their sheep, which is stinky business – shepherds stayed out of town because you could always smell a shepherd coming, which meant everyone knew who they were as the lowest of the low. They lived in a place of deep dark. These are the ones visited by the glory of angels, the first to come to the manger.
The Jesus story is one where Light comes to shines in the deepest dark. And we all have it. We all have places of deep dark. The deep dark of grief – whether we have lost someone recently or a while ago – Christmas sure reminds us of those whom we love who are absent. There is also the grief of broken relationships – whether broken through divorce, through hurt that has caused schisms in our families, through betrayal. Or the grief we carry for the ways in which our life is not quite what we thought it would be at this point – whether we thought we would be married now, or that having children would come easy, or that the challenges of our particular child seem more than we can bear at times.
Then there is the deep dark of personal pain – illness, job loss, financial issues, depression, anxiety, addiction, loneliness, or abuse. …And our dark may not seem what we consider a BIG DEAL thing. “Deep dark” makes it sounds like it has to be really big – but it doesn’t. It’s just really dark. Something we’ve lived with a long time, or fresh this week. What is your dark now?
Here at Salt House, we always have what we call our Grief Wall and our Gratitude Wall. The Grief Wall is our smaller version of the wailing wall that is in Jerusalem. And the Gratitude Wall is just there because, I mean, c’mon, we need a wall where gratitude can live!
This Christmas, in this present moment, I invite you to be Christmas Present by being present to your deep dark, and to name it. Through Advent, we named and brought forward our places of hope, peace, JOY and love. And tonight we go dark. You should have a piece of paper that was given to you (please pull that out) if not, there are plenty more over by the Grief Wall. You are invited to walk toward your deep dark by naming it. To write it down and in a few minutes, clip it on the Grief Wall during Holy Communion. And you very well might actually be in a place where you want to write a word of Gratitude – please do that and put it on that board instead. But in a moment as you come forward for Communion, or after we finish worship, please take time and intention to be present, here, now, to how this message of Jesus’ birth is a message for you, for us all. Here. Now.
And I want to name that, especially if you’re a guest, you may be thinking, Thanks, Sara, for ruining my Christmas jam, my good vibes with all this talk of darkness – and really, I don’t apologize for it, because, well that’s the thing about Christmas, and about the whole life of God, and how we approach things here at Salt House – we feel all the things. We walk toward the joy AND the suffering in our lives knowing that Jesus invites us into what Brene Brown has called wholeheartedness.
And we do it now because the promise is that the light is beginning to grow. ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you (to us all) is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah.’ The deepest dark is not the place where grace goes to die (but man, it sure feels that way when we’re in it!), but the deepest dark is the place where grace goes to be born.
This is what we find at the manger. My friends, tonight, tomorrow, in all of our celebrations with family with friends, with presents, with stocking, and with pie – I love pie, in the midst of all the Christmasy goodness, we can hold the dark, too. We can even speak of it with those we are with. For Friends, we stand together with Jesus who is our Emmanuel, our God with us, at this first moment, once again, when our eyes can perceive that light is now beginning to grow. For this we say: Merry Christmas. And thanks be to God.
As the band comes back up, let’s take one minute for quiet, to be here. And to listen to our lives and lean into the deep dark we may be holding. And in solidarity and without apology, let ourselves feel it, name it, knowing that even now the light is beginning to grow. Please roll your shoulders back, feel your feet on the floor, become aware of your breath. Close your eyes, write if you’d like, use this minute for quiet reflection…