A 4-Watt Bulb at Christmas

Christmas 1 / December 28, 2014 / Year B

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 / Psalm 147 / John 1:1-18

Preached: December 28, 2014, All Saints’ Church, Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY

(This sermon was inspired by a sermon written by my mother about this same nativity scene. I’ve re-contextualized here for the All Saints’ congregation.)

Merry Christmas!

I guess it’s a little bit like saying, I love chocolate, or I love summer, but I do love Christmas. And I especially love the part of Christmas that comes after Christmas Day. These 12 days of Christmas, when the city slows down, and we get to travel and see our families, and play around with our presents. And I love the decorations, the poinsettias, the trees with their humming electric lights, and the nativity scenes.

I really love the nativity scenes. Probably more than anything else, these mean Christmas to me. This has got a lot to do with my house growing up and my mother’s huge collection of nativity scenes. We’d get down the boxes at the beginning of every Advent and I’d carefully help her unwrap piece after piece of seemingly endless creche pieces. I love this weird little nativity family and all the different representations of it: an unmarried woman, a sweet young man, a brand new baby, shepherds, and kings, and hay-chewing animals, all in their dirty stable-house. And always, somehow, miraculously, God is in there. God chooses that dirty, smelly manger, every time.

My mother has a creche for every corner of every room of my parents’ house. Her fancy Fontanini nativity scene has so many pieces, it spills over multiple tables. She has many others, too. I brought her one with three camels from my trip to the Holy Land. There’s a Playmobil set, and a Charlie Brown character set, and a felt board, and one that’s so big it sits in the fireplace, and one so microscopic you could use tweezers to set it up.

A favorite one first belonged to my great uncle Bill, bought by his father for his first Christmas in 1924. The stable looks like it would be more at home in Bavaria than in Palestine. The figures are dressed in what must have been bright colors on that Christmas morning in 1924, blue and gold and pink. Mary and Joseph and the Baby in the manger wear thin golden halos; the shepherds carry their fedoras in their hands. There are many sheep, some sitting and some standing, and one ram, with beautifully curved horns.

Uncle Bill never married and died before his first niece was born, but the nativity scene was given to her for her first Christmas in 1951. Sometime after that it was carefully wrapped up—each figure in its own piece of newspaper and the whole thing in an old liquor carton. It ended up in the basement of my Aunt Aggie’s house. When my father’s cousins were cleaning out the house after their mother’s death, they came across the beautiful old nativity scene. They were going to throw it out when one of them remembered that my mother collects nativity scenes. And so, my family got the moldy old box.

Every year, my mother unwraps the figures delicately, with wonder anew that anyone could have ever forgotten it. The tiny figures are so carefully sculpted; the expressions on their faces so grave and serious. The clay is falling off the wire legs of the little sheep, and the camel is missing his ears. But a faint gleam comes from the golden halos around the heads of the Holy Family.

There’s another special feature to this particular nativity set, and it’s a tiny little 4 watt light bulb under the roof of the barn. When it’s turned on, the Holy Family and the ox and donkey are lit from above.

When I think about Christmas in my house growing up, I remember walking through the living room late at night, trying to catch a glimpse of my presents in the pitch black dark, and seeing just the faintest light coming from one corner of the room. The little light in the old stable, the little light shining gently on the chipping Baby Jesus, the little 4 watt bulb that was supposed to remind us of the Heavenly light in Bethlehem on that crazy night so long ago.

John says: “In the beginning was the Word. . . . What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

Genesis says: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, God said, “Let there be light.””

The beginning of the Biblical story of creation and the beginning of the Gospel we read today agree on this: God is the source of light. Light is the gift of God to a world that is shrouded in darkness. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

And there is plenty of darkness in the world, dear sisters and brothers.

Tomorrow is the day we recognize the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day that’s always tucked away right after Christmas, a quick acknowledgment of all the young boys of Bethlehem killed by King Herod as he tried to get rid of Jesus. It’s difficult to think of these young innocent boys being murdered and not think of Michael Brown, 18, shot and killed in Missouri. Trayvon Martin, 16, shot and killed in Florida. Tamir Rice, 12, shot and killed in Ohio. This year, the light has been thrust on what many people, especially people of color, have known for so long–the darkness of racism persists in this country, and many innocent people die because of it.

People may discriminate, but guns do not. We also remember this month the two-year anniversary of those 28 deaths in Newtown, Connecticut. We remember the terrifyingly long list of shooting deaths since, including school shootings. We remember police officers Ramos and Liu, murdered last week here in Brooklyn. I remember my great Uncle Bill, who shot and killed himself when he was just 18, and my dear grandfather, who found him. There is no one, rich or poor, black or white or Latina or Asian, known or unknown, who is impervious to loss. Even old familiar losses ache in this season of joy.

We wonder why? We wonder why so many people are murdered by guns in this country? We wonder why racism makes this especially true for young people of color? And we wonder where that light is? Where is the light that came into the world, into that dirty, smelly manger?

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” The little light hiding in the roof of the stable was so faint in my living room growing up, you could almost miss it.

“He was in the world,” John tells us, “and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

The little night-light in the old family crêche is just a symbol of the powerful light that Jesus brought into the world—that was always in the world, both Genesis and John tell us. And yet, it is just as easy to miss that light as it is to miss the four-watt bulb in a big, dark room.

Every year we get to tell this story. We get to pull down the creches from the attic. We talk about the poor young couple walking to Bethlehem. We talk about their little baby, born in a stable because there was no other place for them to be. We talk about the angels and the shepherds and the star—the beautiful light that shone over the city and compelled some wise ones to begin a mysterious journey. We love that story, and so we tell it, over and over.

And yet, soon after a single magic night, when we pierce the darkness with as many candles as we can find, and we drag trees into our houses to hold strings of lights, and we put little night-lights in our nativity scenes, soon after that, we begin to pack everything away. We unplug the electric lights, and we toss the candles stubs in the trash. We wrap the fragile decorations in old newspapers that tell the stories of the darkness of the world. We pack away the painful truth along with the creche pieces.

John, the one whose Gospel we read today, was Jesus’ dearest friend. His nickname is the “Beloved Disciple.” Long after Jesus died, John sat down to write about the experience of knowing and loving God in Christ Jesus; he sat down to write his Gospel. He did not retell our favorite story. There is not a word about the tough journey or the angels or the shepherds. There is just the light—the light that shone in the mean little town of Bethlehem on that miracle night. And John told us—reminded us, really—that the light has always been there.

Millennia ago, a little baby was born in Bethlehem, a Hebrew word that means “house of bread.” Jesus was born to remind us of the gift of God’s life and light that had already been given to us in creation. He grew up, quite possibly in the kind of poverty and loss that we might perceive as great darkness. As he lived, he brought life and light to those whom he touched. And then he was murdered by the state.

As we do every week, we are about to have communion, and remember the sorrow of Jesus’ death and the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. But we don’t stop there. We don’t gather this morning simply to remember a story. If we did, then after we ate the Bread and drank the Wine, we would have to pack everything away until the next time we tell the story.

This is the gift of God’s light in the world, shining above that dirty and smelly manger. We gather today, as we do every week, and we gather in the light–to remember the light, to become filled with the light, so much greater than 4 watts. And then, not just today, not just on Christmas, but every day, we go out into the world, onto the streets, holding the light. AMEN.

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