This week many churches will host a Blue Christmas, or a Longest Night Service, or what we call Healing the Holiday: hope for when Christmas hurts. Ours is this evening. When I checked out the readings of the day, I discovered that we will be using the same gospel portion tonight as on Sunday morning: Joseph discovers Mary’s pregnancy, almost baulks, and is advised by an angel to have faith, to hold on:
We gather in the shadow of Gaudete Sunday, with its admonishments of joy: Rejoice.
Gaudete, Christus natus est is the anthem that springs to mind. Rejoice, for Christ is born.
It is good news, it is the good news that God has come among us, that God is close enough to touch us, that God loves the world and its creatures so much as to live among us, love among us, suffer and grieve among us.
The birth of Jesus happened this way. Joseph and Mary were betrothed, promised to one another, when it was discovered that Mary was pregnant. We know from another gospel that Mary had already heard from an Archangel that this was a miracle born of God. Joseph needed his own reassurance, which came to him in a dream. It was enough, it seems; he must have been a man of very great faith, or so besotted with Mary that he was willing to believe anything that would let him keep her by his side.
The birth of the child was not without complications. It was the source of so much joy – angels sang out over the hillsides, in that other gospel, because heaven and earth could not contain the joy of this birth.
And yet it was not without complications.
Anyone who has been a parent knows that the birth of a child comes with deep anxiety layered between the tears of joy and pain. Anyone who has been a parent knows the hopes and fears that meet in that moment of crisis, the crowning of their expectations, the birth of a child.
The birth of Jesus could have been no different. It was not without complications. In fact, Mary was told clearly that this joy in her new child would return to pierce her like a sword.
When grief attends the table, the joy of Christmas past might return like a knife to pierce our hearts. When suffering is a constant companion, the song of the angels promising the good will of God clatters harshly against our ears.
As Jesus grew, he got lost, he argued and fell out with his family, he fought with his closest friend, once calling him Satan. He was tempted and hungry. He was misunderstood and lonely. He was abandoned and betrayed. He wept at the graveside of his friend. His heart hurt. By the time that spear pierced his side on the Cross, his heart had ceased to beat, but his mother, her prophecy finally fulfilled, felt its pain and caught her breath as though it was her own flesh and blood that it had torn.
Joseph knew none of this when he had that dream that reassured him of Mary’s love and faithfulness, and strengthened him to accept Jesus into his heart and home. All he knew was that he was confused, and bewildered, and hurting, and that God’s response was not to back down or to back away, but to advise Joseph to dream of living, loving, holding on anyway; God would be with him.
In his Christmas message, released this week, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry bypassed the angels and the shepherds, even Mary and Joseph. He talked instead about the opening words of the Gospel according to John:
It’s not an accident that long ago, followers of Jesus began to commemorate his birth, his coming into the world. When the world seemed darkest. When hope seemed to be dashed on the altar of reality. It is not an accident that we too, commemorate his coming, when things do not always look right in this world.
But there is a God. And there is Jesus. And even in the darkest night. That light once shined and will shine still. His way of love is the way of life. It is the light of the world. And the light of that love shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, cannot, and will not overcome it.
Christmas is not uncomplicated, nor is it always unabated joy. But it is still good news, it is the good news that God has come among us, that God is close enough to touch us, that God loves the world and its creatures so much as to live among us, love among us, to shine light in the dark night, to break open the new, mewling, hungry cry of hope.
The Revd Rosalind C Hughes is Rector of the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio. She blogs at over the water (rosalindhughes.com). Her first book, A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing, is due out 1 April 2020 from Upper Room Books.