Readings for Christmas Eve: Darkness and Light

The Christmas season is a time of contrasts. In a dark cold night, the light of a star offers hope. The King of Kings is born in a humble manger. The church’s Advent readings draw this contrast even sharper. When the society around us is celebrating with holly-jolly cartoon characters and piles of presents, we’re asked to think about repentance, prophecy and the end times.

Why dwell on sin and death as preparation for Christ’s birth? Otherwise we would miss the true world-colliding awesomeness of the event. “Peace on earth, goodwill to humankind,” we say, as if good intentions made it so. But peace and solidarity are fragile flames, always in danger of being blown out by the dark winds of violence, power struggles and prejudice. Forget this and we forget to shield them against the enemies that arise within and without. God as infant is not merely born into love and cuddles, but into all the vulnerability of being human in a sinful world. Like all of us, he is born to die — but not only to die, as Easter tells us.

So Christmas is not the end of the story. It is still part of the between-times that do not reach their resolution until the Second Coming, and so we read Bible passages about the continuing war between darkness and light.

Yet light will win in the end. How do we know? Not because of overpowering military force, but because of this baby who was born. How improbable, how full of grace.

Christmas Bells
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The Carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of Peace on earth, good-willl to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
    ‘For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!’

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