The darkest night in 500 years?

img_3628In the lead-up to the winter solstice earlier this week, I saw social media chatter claiming it would be the darkest night in 500 years. This phenomenon would apparently be the result of a lunar eclipse occurring on the same night as the solstice, the longest night of each year. Great, I thought along with most of the posts I observed. Just like 2016 to leave us with the literal darkest night in a half a millennium.

That, however, isn’t the whole story. There wasn’t a lunar eclipse. The root of this rumor was found to be a story about the 2010 solstice. Furthermore, new moons are significantly darker than lunar eclipses. And even if it had been the darkest night in five centuries astronomically speaking, most of us wouldn’t experience it thanks to the developed world’s stifling light pollution. It was dark, sure. The solstice marked the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere as it does every year. But it did not remain so. The sun came up the next morning, and our little lights of tungsten and gas along with a slender crescent moon held back total darkness until the sun returned.

I couldn’t think of a better way to describe Advent and Christmas, both in their original iteration so many years ago and in our 2016 commemorations. In a lowly backwater under the permanent threat of brutal crimes against humanity, the light pollution-free night sky above a field of shepherds burst forth with light and hope. The scene makes no sense then just as now, but I believe the message itself made less sense than the supernatural messenger. These were men who lived a life of isolation and contempt, useful but utterly undesirable to polite society. They, along with everyone they’d ever known, were surrounded on all sides by poverty, corruption, oppression, and violence in ways most of my readers can only imagine. And yet the light shone anyway.

What I find fascinating is that the proclamation to the shepherds implicitly agreed that darkness was present and real; if it wasn’t, why would one need to announce the arrival of light and hope? Darkness surrounded the shepherds,  but it wasn’t the whole story. It wasn’t left to those in darkness to find the light on their own, for the Light of the World came to them.

The darkness around us, too, is real. The president-elect is making casual comments about a nuclear arms race. An estimated 5,000 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean this year alone, fleeing body counts we may never fully know. Many of us are facing the kind of personal pain that defies words. The darkness around us is real; I can’t possibly say otherwise. But it isn’t the whole story. Even now, there are little spots, sparks, and reflections of something we can’t fully comprehend. When we are too far down to reflect light ourselves, others reflect that which holds back total darkness. We don’t have to grope for the light in our own pain, for the Light of the World has come to us.

Merry Christmas,
Geoff Davidson

The darkest night in 500 years?

What is love? (baby don’t hurt me)

This is the fourth in a series on the four Sundays of Advent. Click the links for the preceding three Sundays: Hope, Peace, and Joy.

b3cb585f-e7c5-47dc-8c94-2f55448f9871We’ve arrived at the last week of Advent, traditionally held as a thematic celebration of love. Though I preached on this topic Sunday, I’ve still struggled how to put this down into words to be read. I know it’s because, frankly, I’m still not sure what love is, and I don’t think I’m alone. As the years go by, Haddaway’s “What is Love?” can still get a crowd going. I can’t help but laugh when I hear Leslie Knope declare, “We’re just animals; we don’t know anything about love” to her friend Ann Perkins amidst an awkward situation over a guy. Brick Tamland’s admission of love for items around him (including a lamp) has remained a classic reference from Anchorman. We try to sing ironically or laugh at these follies but we fail, because we too don’t know what love is. And even when we think we do, we often summon up little more than a Brick-esque annunciation devoid of evidence.

On Sunday I preached from Isaiah 53. This text gives us a familiar Christmas message of love, but familiarity should not prevent it from shaking us to our core.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
I really struggle with this concept. Not the likelihood of suffering for love, as we often study in this passage, but the sheer plainness of Christlike love. Jesus, according to both the Messianic expectation in Isaiah 53 and what we know about Galilee in His time, came across as just some dude. Rough hewn, tempered by a rough existence in a rough, violent town and time spent with His earthly father in a rough line of work. Nothing to look at, and for many something from which to turn away. The God and very King of All, yet just another lowly life to ignore on the sidewalk.

We have no idea how to fathom a love like this. Tim Keller in his new book Hidden Christmas quotes a Christian speaker discussing a Blue Angel routine at a football game and adds his own complementary observation: “The speaker observed, ‘If I were God sending my son into the world, that’s how I would have done it—with spectacular special effects, a cheering crowd, and of course those silver flight suits. But that’s not how God did it.’ At every point Jesus defied the world’s expectations for how celebrities should act and how social movements should begin. The world cannot comprehend a God like Jesus.”

Look at the past year and a half of politics. Look at so many romance movies. Look at, irony of ironies, how we mark this season. We expect all good things, including love, to come from grand gestures in gilded rooms. We believe power emanates from cultural monoliths in their halls of marble. We claw so desperately to live out this expectation in how we love others, fail brutally, and live cut off as a consequence. But love, the greatest of all powers, came down as a little baby born in a smelly manger, fled as a refugee, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and lived a life of pure love while walking about as just some dude. We are free indeed this Christmas, for our imprisoning expectations of love have been forever ruined by the man Jesus Christ.

What is love? (baby don’t hurt me)

Krampus, angels, and joy

This is the third in a series on the four Sundays of Advent. For the 1st Sunday, Hope, click here, and for the 2nd Sunday, Peace, click here.

fdf14246-3a16-41c8-902f-494651ff63dfFolks, I’m here to tell you that American parents have missed out on a real opportunity. Every year, Christmas comes around and brings with it reminders to be good so that Santa Claus will bring presents. A few centuries ago in Central Europe, however, parents were warning their children about something much darker: Krampus. Every December 5th, so the story went, Krampus would come to visit justice upon deserving children. St. Nicholas would come the following night to visit those who had done well. But first, Krampus came to hand out punishment, delivering switches with which children could be beaten and even taking the worst offenders away. Somehow, an infernal goat-man bent on vengeance seems a more serious threat than an empty stocking or a handful of coal.

While the idea of risking childhood emotional trauma is admittedly harsh, I think many of us resonate with the overall concept of Krampus; that is, that those who deserve it, get it. Those who’ve hurt us or the ones we’ve loved, those who have taken advantage of others, and those we just don’t like. Call it karma, call it Krampus, call it whatever else, many of us hope for or believe in such a balancing of the scales.

Unfortunately, in our ostensibly noble thirst for justice, we sometimes read suffering as the visitation of justice in real time. If that person is hurting or impoverished or cast out, they probably aren’t blameless in this. “Well, they’re no angel,” goes the refrain. This isn’t a new problem. Throughout Scripture, we find people trying to reverse engineer pain to find what earned it, whether it’s Job’s friends looking over the smoking crater of his life or Jesus disciples asking who had sinned to cause a man’s blindness. As in our own time, those not in suffering reason that something done by the afflicted merited or even caused this.

Consider today’s Advent text. Today, the third Sunday of Advent, Christians around the world are right now focusing on the theme of Joy. Totally makes sense for Christmas, right? Joy. Three little letters convey the image of Christmas with surprising profundity. Isaiah 35 is a fantastic text for looking at joy. The desert blooming, the fearful encouraged, the hurting healed, and joy exploding all around.

But we, like our predecessors, have a problem living it out. This text of messianic expectation clearly ties joy to the hurting finding relief…and yet those waiting on Messiah (and even those who physically walked with Messiah!) dismiss their pleas with a calm, “Well, they’re no angels.” A Christmas that offers joy only to the successful and healthy, those we assume must have done something right to get there, isn’t good news at all. It’s not even news! Such a Christmas would be the same old world carrying on as it is. But the radical and good news of Christmas is that Christ came for the sick, not the healthy. In this season in which we decorate with and sing about angels, Christ is seeking those we’ve dismissed as not being angels, bringing joy rather than the spirit of Krampus. May we do the same.

Krampus, angels, and joy

Disruptive peace

This is the second in a series on the four Sundays of Advent. For the 1st Sunday, Hope, click here.

f7f455ba-8582-4be2-b4a6-27206b7aa4edIt’s easy to lose sight of the genuine profundity of World War I, the Great War, in our world off first-person shooters, militarized law enforcement, and perpetual military interventions waged from control rooms thousands of miles from targets. War had seemingly transformed its very nature over night. Gone were the days of spring campaigning and winter waiting; war could be waged at any moment of any day. Simpler technology, inadvertently inhibiting the scale of conflict, was replaced by machine guns, long-range artillery, tanks, aircraft, and chemical warfare which could all pave battlefields with lifeless bodies. War, rather than occurring in relative isolation, could now pull entire continents and civilian populations into its hell.

I simply cannot fathom how jarring this shift in reality would have been for all involved. How many mangled bodies or foxholes bombed out of existence must one see before realizing that this was the new world? But even there in the trenches, divine hope found a way to blossom in a graveyard, as it always does. In December 1914, as the first snows of World War I mingled with the ash, thousands upon thousands laid aside their arms. Men up and down both fronts, surely cautiously at first, emerged from the trenches and met in the middle in love rather than enmity. What brought British, French, German, Russian, and Austrian forces together? Christmas.

In celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace, enemies came together to sing hymns, exchange gifts, trade services such as haircutting, and even play soccer. Though Death had claimed the pockmarked No Man’s Land as its domain, the radical love of Jesus for a time exploded like no bomb ever could, filling the middle ground with rejoicing and reconciliation. Though critics point out that many places observed no such truce, that the truces didn’t ultimately last, and that the following Christmas saw commanders plan offensives to prevent such fraternization, the gospel witness of the Christmas Truce stands tall, even finding its way into a century commemorative commercial for a supermarket chain in the UK (it is absolutely worth your time to click this link and see this miracle reenacted). The call for future offensives to prevent truces does not detract from Christmas 1914 but rather testifies to its importance, for Hell and Death had to redouble their efforts in fear of another victory for reconciliation.

What, other than coincidence of season, does the 1914 Christmas Truce have to do with Advent? Absolutely everything. Today, the second Sunday of Advent, many celebrants focus on Peace. Isaiah 11 gives us one of the most famous passages on peace in all of Scripture:
The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.
What we see here is peace, Christ’s peace, not merely the absence of conflict. Christ’s peace is a rejection of the status quo in favor of radical reconciliation across enemy lines. Like Christ, we live in a time in which we can accept peace by way of war offered by the dominant political power of the time. But the Pax Americana does as little to heal as the Pax Romana. As in the days of Jeremiah the Prophet, the societal powerbrokers cry out for their peace, a weak peace that protects the evils of the status quo rather than healing them. The “peace” of this world is a fragile, pathetic thing in which the oppressed must stay oppressed and enemies must either stay away or stay dead. Thus the peace of Christ is by necessity distruptive. And for a few beautiful moments in the supposed “War to End All Wars”, craters and barbed wire gave unwilling witness to the one thing that can and will end war, disrupting our attempts in favor of something better: wolves and lambs, calves and lions, Allied and Central reconciled by a child born in a manger, leading them to God’s true peace.

Disruptive peace