Longest Night is a quieter worship time for reflection and prayer before Christmas
Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Wednesday, December 15, 2021 at 6:30 p.m. in Christ Chapel (in person only)
[sermon reflection begins after two Bible readings: Isaiah reading is at the end]
Matthew 11:28-30 Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
John 1:1-5, 14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
[sermon reflection begins]
“Blessed are you in the darkness and in the light,” Pastor Ann and I pray during communion on Sundays. We pray this prayer during Holy Communion in a litany of gratitude before the bread and wine are blessed. By faith, we’re promised God’s presence everywhere, but we often mistake darkness and dark times for God’s absence. Darkness is disorienting. It’s tough to tell the difference between the womb and the tomb. Is something about to be born? Is the shroud of grief and disappointment every going to lift? We look to an unknowable outcome as if knowing the outcome would clear the confusion and frustration, so we often hang onto something because we don’t know what new thing will come into being.
Early in November, on All Saints Day, I led worship for Urban Servant Corps, a Lutheran Ministry in Denver. Young adults live together for a year in voluntary poverty while offering their time and skills to local non-profits. We were supposed to be in person but one of the young people had just come down with Covid, so we were worshipping on Zoom. One more disappointment for the Covid pile. Because it was All Saints Day, and because I wasn’t sure what singing was like with this crew, I’d planned to play a song during the prayers as well as after the sermon reflection. Thank God because singing on Zoom does not work at all! While listening to the music, I asked them to write down the names of people they were grieving for this year or people who have died that they considered heroes or examples. I started writing too. My list and artwork included people who have long since died and people who’ve died more recently – family, friends, children I took care of as a nurse, and people in my congregation. Some died from Covid, but most didn’t. The list grew. I was struck by how many people didn’t get another year of the gift of life, how much I still miss them and how much their lives still bless my own.
My planned reflection with Urban Servant Corps included the long-held Jewish traditional words when someone dies. Jews say, “May their memory be for blessing.” It’s a beautiful thing to say. “May their memory be for blessing.” Sometimes we can hold onto the sadness of grief because grief feels like the most real thing about a person or situation that we’ve lost and still long for. Our sadness becomes a tether to them through the grief. But the sadness can also tie them and us down, limiting their lives and ours to the singular experience of their death. Allowing the possibility that their memory can bless us similarly honors what we’ve lost while letting our loved one be their full person in our lives and not just the one who’s no longer with us. Allowing their memory to be for blessing makes room for joy and laughter in a world where they didn’t get their next birthday and we do. Our joy honors the time they wish they’d had. Grief and joy are a paradox indeed – light shining in the darkness. Whether womb or tomb we cannot know.
What we do know is that cross and Christmas are intertwined. God has skin in the game, creased and crinkled skin, newly birthed; crucified and cracked skin, newly died; and resurrected yet still wounded skin, newly born from above. At any time of year, but particularly in the shortest days and longest nights, we remember God’s promise to be present in the darkness and in the light – womb, tomb, and the emergence from both. We hold the light in the darkness for each other, reminding ourselves that God is present whatever our circumstance might be – suffering with us when we suffer and rejoicing with us in our joy. Even when we feel overcome, God promises that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, cannot, never will overcome it. Thanks be to God and amen.
2The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.