The fact is that we don’t know exactly when Jesus Christ was born. They didn’t keep records back in those days and they wouldn’t have known themselves on which day they were born. So why do we celebrate his birth on this particular day, 25 December?
To answer that question we have to go from the sweltering southern hemisphere to the shivering northern hemisphere where on 25 December, long before Christianity, there was the celebration of the winter solstice which still occurs in the northern hemisphere on or about this day. It was the longest night and the shortest day of the year; and what was celebrated was the unconquered light of the sun on this day of deepest darkness. It brought the first glimmer of a light which no darkness could dispel. As so often happened, Christianity took over the feast of the winter solstice and turned it into the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ on this day. Why? Because he is light in flesh, light at the heart of the world’s darkness, the light that no darkness can ever dispel.
So Christmas is all about light and darkness. We’ve heard prophet Isaiah say that “a people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” – and the light is Jesus; for “those who live in a land of deep shadow, a light has shone” – and the light is the newborn child. Christmas is, then, a time of darkness and deep shadow, but also of light. We tend to think of Easter as the feast of light, and indeed it is. But so too is Christmas. Christmas and Easter are two sides of the same divine coin; the triumph of life over death and the triumph of light over darkness.
Tradition has it that Jesus was born at night. In the Gospel, we’re told that there were shepherds taking it in turn to watch their flocks during the night. Whatever about the actual facts, the baby is born always and only in the night. The light appears always and only at the heart of darkness.
The fact is Jesus was born in a grim and dark time. First century Palestine was no picnic, given the brutality the Roman occupation brought. As one British chieftain said of the Pax Romana – the peace of Rome – “they create a devastation and they call it peace”. It was a time of economic hardship because of harsh taxation, and to make matters worse there were successive famines. So this was no bright and happy time into which Christ was born, whenever it happened. He was born into a darkness that was more than physical.
Tonight we sit in darkness, even though we gather in a Cathedral flooded with light. The darkness of which I speak is symbolic – a darkness which has undoubted power and seems even to have the last word. Consider what we have been through here in Australia in recent times. Phillip Hughes gets hit on the head by a cricket ball: it’s happened before of course, but this time he dies. The dark shadow of death falls even across the sunlit fields of summer. But there’s worse to come. We have the siege in Sydney where a kind of dark madness takes hold and again death seems to hold sway. Things get still worse as we look further north as a woman kills eight children, seven of them her own. The darkness could hardly be deeper.
Then if you look beyond our own shores there’s the chaos of the Middle East, the land where Jesus was born; and among those getting the worst of it are our brothers and sisters there who are Christian. They’re being driven from their homes, stripped of their possessions and even slaughtered simply because they refused to betray the one whose birth we celebrate today. You see what I mean by darkness?
Yet it’s not just “out there”. There’s a darkness in my heart, a darkness in your heart; and all of that we bring to this moment. You leave nothing behind if you come to the baby who is born. Because if we don’t bring the darkness to this celebration, then all we’re left with at Christmas is the tinsel, which is never enough for the human heart. Yet the promise of this moment is precisely that there is more than the tinsel. There’s a promise fulfilled when the baby is born and it’s this – that there is a light and it’s he that no darkness can dispel; that light is triumphant even when we’re at the winter solstice of life or at the point of deepest darkness – because it’s there that the light is born.
This is the way the real God is. We see it at the very start of the biblical story where there is the primeval darkness into which we are told God speaks one word – “light”; “and there was light”. Knowing that this is the way the real God is, if we look for him anywhere else other than the darkness we’ll find only the tinsel God.
This morning we celebrate not the tinsel God but the God who is flesh and blood. Who could’ve believed it? Who but God could’ve even thought of it – that we should have a God who becomes one of us, not sitting up in some far off heaven. The far-off God would be no good to us. Instead we have a God who gets down into the mud, who comes to us like the shepherds as we huddle here in the darkness. There they were, the shepherds, in their cold, dark, miserable little world, watching the sheep because that was all they could do. Yet the light shone around them, and so too it shines around us.
The light streams from the God who is one of us and who makes a home for us in Jesus. We are told that there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn. So out into the cold and the dark they must go, even the pregnant woman. Here tonight, in the moment of Christmas, we are met by a God who not only makes room for us at the inn, calling us out of the darkness into the light, but a God who in the newborn child makes for us a home of light, peace and joy, a home that nothing and no one can destroy.
Most Rev Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane