To many people, the highlight service of the church year is Christmas Eve. Let’s be honest: to some people, the only service of the church year is Christmas Eve. But I don’t find that service to be truly what Christmas is all about, in my experience as someone who lives with depression. To me, Christmas Eve is happy and rejoicing and children and lots of candles and singing “O Come Let Us Adore Him,” and it’s wonderful. But to me, that’s not what Christmas is about. The most important and powerful sign of Christmas to me is a service that, in my setting, we hold in the afternoon of the Fourth Sunday in Advent each year, a service that we call “Blue Christmas.” Services like this are held in many congregations. Sometimes they are called “Longest Night” services, and in that case are often held on the evening of the winter solstice, whatever day of the week that happens to be. The idea behind them is that many people are suffering at this time of year. It might be due to a death in the family, or a broken relationship, or a family member stationed overseas, or in my case, mental illness. Christmas, while it can be the most happy and joyful time of year for many, can be equally heartbreaking and painful for those who are suffering. It almost seems like our culture, and even our congregations, force us to put on a happy face at this time of year. I also think that Christmas is the most nostalgic time of year, a time when we look back at Christmases in the past and mourn at how they’re not the way they once were.
To me, this side of Christmas is tragic, because it has nothing to do with the hope and peace of the incarnation. I find it much more meaningful to focus instead on the “Blue Christmas.” For this service, I usually use John 1:1-14 as the gospel, and that is usually what I preach on. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” I’d like to share with you one sermon I have preached on Blue Christmas. It is not specifically focused on mental illness, but certainly that is where I came from when I prepared it. In this sermon, I also told the story of Mary from Luke chapters 1 and 2 from a different angle, so this can also function as a bit of exegesis for the Nativity readings as well. I wish you all a blessed Christmas. Here’s the sermon:
Once upon a time there was a young woman named Mary. Mary was just getting ready to begin her adult life. She was engaged to be married, and this made her very happy, because in the time and place where she lived, women needed to rely on men for money and security. You relied on your father while growing up, and then your husband for the rest of your life. If your husband died, then hopefully you had an adult son who would take care of you. Unmarried or widowed women had a very difficult time in this society. So Mary was very happy to be engaged to Joseph. She knew that she had a bright future ahead of her.
But then something very surprising happened. An angel of the Lord appeared to Mary, and told her that she would bear a son, who would do great things. Mary’s mind reeled. Her stomach turned. I’m not married yet, she thought. Surely this angel meant someone else. She said to the angel: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel replied: “The power of the Most High shall overshadow you.” Mary knew this meant it would happen now. The wedding wasn’t for another year. She would be pregnant and give birth before the wedding. Would Joseph believe her about the angel? Would anyone else? There would be scandal and shame. Outrage and offense. She would likely be thrown out of her house. Out of the synagogue. This was bad. Very bad. She did not like this one bit.
And yet, Mary found hope. She believed the angel’s words. She trusted that this was God’s will. She said: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” How she found that hope I’ll never know, but she did. And it gave her strength to get through the days ahead.
Some months later, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. All had to go to their ancestral town for the registration. This was not good. People had to travel from one end of the country to the other. Some were frail. Some were poor. Some were frightened of their homes being looted or destroyed while they were gone. And Mary was nearing the end of her pregnancy, not a good time to travel. And all this, so that the brutal Roman empire could more accurately determine how to tax the people they oppressed. This was bad. Very bad. But she and Joseph went. They traveled eighty miles on foot.
And when they arrived, there was no place for them to stay. Surely Joseph had relatives in his ancestral city. But perhaps they refused to welcome him with his pregnant fiancée. There was no place for these two anywhere. So Mary gave birth outdoors, and the only place to lay this infant was in a manger, the food trough for animals, filled with hay and spittle and dirt. This was bad. Very bad. A terrible place to give birth. A terrible place to put your newborn child.
This was the birth of Jesus according to Luke, the story we hear each Christmas. The story of a child born to outcasts a hundred miles from home, spending his first night on earth outdoors in an animal trough. A story with a lot more suffering than we often notice.
And yet, shepherds soon arrived, announcing that they’d heard the song of angels singing this child’s praises. And yet, Matthew tells us that wise men later arrived, announcing that they’d seen this child’s star rise in a far-off land. And they gave him gifts befitting a king, a savior, a God. In the midst of suffering nation, in the womb of a suffering woman, born in a suffering town, God arrived.
And God brought hope to those wise men, who traveled hundreds of miles to seek a king. God brought hope to those shepherds, who left there praising and glorifying God. And God brought hope to Mary, who sang:
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Mary still lived with suffering. But she saw it all so differently, because she was given the gift of hope. And Christ comes today to bring hope to you.
As Isaiah wrote in our first reading today: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.
As Isaiah later wrote in our second reading today: Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
As John wrote in our gospel reading today: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
And as Luke wrote in the story we hear each year at Christmas: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Christ knows what suffering is. He was born into the depths of great suffering. And he was born to bring hope and light to people who suffer. He knows you, and he knows what you live with. And he is coming to bring you hope. To bring you light. To shine in your darkness. To dwell with you, and within you. Christ is coming. God is coming. To you.
Thanks for reading. Leave a comment below. If you like what you read here, please share it with others. You can like Biblia Luna on Facebook at @BibliaLuna, or follow on Twitter at @LunaBiblia. If you’d like to read other things I write, from sermons to poems to rants to mathematical nonsense, check out my primary blog at thescholtes.com.
And a blessed Christmas season to you all.