I delivered this message at a Longest Night service at Wesley UMC last night. A Longest Night service is a service intended for those who have a difficult time around the holidays. Maybe they have lost a loved one, making this time of gathering with family and friends particularly difficult. Or maybe they suffer from anxiety and depression. Or maybe the stress of the holidays in the U.S. is just too much. Maybe this will be helpful to you, too:
I don’t know why you’re here.
I don’t know if the loss of a loved one makes this time of year, this time of gathering with friends and family, particularly hard to bear. I don’t know if the horrific events in Connecticut last week are at the forefront of your mind. I don’t know if you’re one of the many people across this country who suffers from anxiety and depression around the holiday season. I don’t know if this time of shortened days and cold nights wears on your body and your soul. I don’t know if you are feeling, for whatever reason, that—in the words of the Psalmist—the waters have come up to your neck. That you are sinking in deep mire, where there is no foothold.
I do know this. I know that there is room, in the middle of the ‘tis the seasons and the bells and the tinsel and the ads blaring at you to “buy now before it’s too late.” Room for feelings of hurt and of loss. Room for you.
As Mary and Joseph approach Bethlehem, they do so cut off from their families. Scared. Confused. The Nativity itself, far from a picaresque scene for holiday cards, was a scene of desperate poverty. Their only shelter was likely a shallow cave. Mary’s baby was laid down in a dirty feeding trough. Before the angels and the shepherds, before the fireworks, there was only an isolated family huddled together, uncertain of the future, anxious, afraid.
The poverty of this family makes me think of a letter, written by the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung, to a young Christian woman. Jung wrote: “I admire Christians, because when you see someone who is hungry or thirsty, you see Jesus. When you welcome a stranger, someone who is ‘strange,’ you welcome Jesus. When you clothe someone who is naked, you clothe Jesus. What I do not understand, however, is that Christians never seem to recognize Jesus in their own poverty. You always want to do good to the poor outside you and at the same time you deny the poor person living inside you. Why can’t you see Jesus in your own poverty, in your own hunger and thirst? In all that is ‘strange’ inside you; in the violence and the anguish that are beyond your control! You are called to welcome all this, not to deny its existence, but to accept that it is there and to meet Jesus there.”
Each of us comes here tonight with our own poverties. And perhaps we have been taught to deny or repress those poverties, those hurting places in our lives. Particularly around this season of the year, we are meant to be cheerful, full of peace and goodwill. But our Savior was born in darkness and in poverty, and today we can still find God being born in the midst of our hurt and our mourning. Jesus, this child to be born, this God with us, is no stranger to the darkness.
The Psalmist prays: “My tears have been my food day and night,/While people say to me continually,/“Where is your God?” And perhaps you have been asking yourself this same question. Where is my God? The Christmas story tells us to look in places that we don’t expect. In caves. In dark places. As Jung writes, we look for Jesus “In all that is ‘strange’ inside us; in the violence and the anguish that are beyond our control.”
I hope that you are able to take time tonight to sit with whatever it is that brought you here. And to begin to ask a difficult question. Where is God in this? Where in this hurt, in this loss, in this fear, is Jesus being born?
God will not always be easy to see. The shepherds and the magi needed miraculous signs and direct messages from angels in order to see God. But God is at work in you, healing, easing alienation, suffering with you, standing alongside you.
This message—that God is with you, in the midst of what brings you here tonight—might not seem like enough. The birth of one child in a backwater occupied vassal state of the Roman Empire certainly did not seem like enough, either. But it is exactly here, and not on the Target sales floor, that we start to look for God being born to us.
Because here, before the angels, before the shepherds, in the midst of the darkness and the fear, it is possible to find a quiet, fierce joy. The flickering hope of the great light to come.