Christmas Light in the Blue Before Dawn
A sermon based on Matthew 1: 18-25
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 11, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A young boy was spending Christmas week with his grandparents. On Christmas Eve the whole extended family went to church. While they were waiting to go in the child checked all the stuff on the walls. When he came to a group of pictures of men in uniform, he asked his grandfather, “Who are all those guys?” His grandfather replied, “Why, those are photos of our boys who died in the service.” The little guy began to cry. His grandfather picked him up and hugged him asking “What’s wrong?” The tearful tyke sobbed, “I want to go home, boys don’t die in our church service back home!”
Last week we lifted up and talked about Mary the Mother of Jesus and her courage and the hope her song The Magnificat brings. On this third Sunday of Advent we are lighting a candle for joy. You probably noticed that it is a rose colored candle. The rose color is meant to represent the joy that we get from the hope of peace and love that the other candles and Sundays in Advent signify, all of them relating to the coming of Jesus into the world on Christmas Day.
Today’s candle is the one that stands out a bit for its different color. Usually I get asked once or twice what the colors of the Advent candles mean. The purple originally stood for penitence. That harks back to an earlier church tradition that commemorated Advent as a sort of mini-Lent.
So the purple candles originally were to remind church goers of the need to repent. But nowadays we tend to think of their purpleness as representing the sovereignty and royalty of Christ. That makes more sense than penitence. Penitence is something few Christians in our culture think about with respect to this season, especially since Advent is now celebrated around peace, hope, joy and love as we move toward the promise of Christmas and the birth of God’s Light incarnate, Christ. Nowadays Advent is as modern theologian and popular writer, Diana Butler Bass, puts it “a time of waiting, listening and preparing for the birth of Jesus . . . It is a time of waiting, of expectation, of hope in the darkness. ” 1.
Before I get any further along I want to point out that that’s where the joy comes in. Hope in the darkness . . . GREAT HOPE! Dark is the absence of light and therefore absence of color. And the Advent Season, what many call the Christmas Season or the Holiday Season, is anything but missing light and color. There is light and color galore.
There’s a lot of color at Christmas and the Advent candle colors are not the only ones that are symbolic. Typically we think of green and red as Christmas colors. Green’s presence is meant to be a reminder in the dead and darkness of winter that spring exists and its light always begins its months long return after the darkest day of the year. That’s the Winter Solstice which occurs three days before Christmas. Jesus, the Light of God incarnate is celebrated as being born on that day – Christmas Day– and we remember too that in our Christian narratives that the “Light incarnate” arose three days after a very dark time. The green of spring is in the holiday to remind us the Light always returns and so hope is a significant part of Advent.
We also have red in Christmas. It’s there to remind religious folks that the green hope of new life came with a cost– Jesus blood spilled by earthly power as a part of Jesus paying the ultimate sacrifice for us. There are lots of other colors at Christmas, like white and gold, which both represent God’s Light.
There is one other color I want to discuss for a bit, blue. Purple is normally Advent’s main liturgical color. But blue is also sometimes used to distinguish the season from Lent. The UCC website points out that while
Purple is normally Advent’s liturgical color, associated both with the sovereignty of Christ and with penitence. Deep Blue is also sometimes used to distinguish the season from Lent. As the color of the night sky, Blue symbolizes Christ who in one ancient Advent song is called the “Dayspring” or source of day. As the color associated with Mary, Blue also reminds us that during Advent the church waits with Mary for the birth of Jesus. 2
Jeanne Mullendore began putting up our beautiful purple Advent paraments three weeks ago. Jeanne adds a piece each week to grow the awesome display of purple Advent artwork as we get nearer to Christmas. Then she changes them for Christmas Eve and the twelve days of Christmas to blue paraments.
Now we do not have blue up at Christmas because of Elvis Presley’s song “Blue Christmas, ” but because blue is a color of hope, and the promise in the sky at dawn as darkness ends. But you know what? That Elvis song reflects on something, a Truth about the holidays that we tend to gloss over or hardly talk about. Blue, you see, is also a word we use for sadness and sorrow. There is that sort of blueness that sets in for a number of us at Christmas. When the Holidays roll in most of us have some shades of blue on the edges of our Christmas Season experience.
We think of those who dies in the service for love of country, and God, and us. We think of family and friends that are no longer with us or are far away. The loved ones who shared the season with us in our past are not home. Our beloved’s presence is missed and mourned.
Advent is about love in our lives and a price of love is sorrow at the loss or absence of those we love. It is natural to miss loved ones during the Holidays where they are an important focal point of the season. And the greater the love the greater sorrow can be. So there is blueness around that at Christmas.
There can be a lot of blueness – like that– but it also comes in other shades and hues . . . those Christmas blues. Some of us experience a blueness during the holidays that is a little harder to explain or talk about. In some families the holidays bring into relief dysfunction and stress . . . or memories of it, even post traumatic effects. Family fights and tension over anything from not enough money to even modestly celebrate, to increased drinking and drunkenness, to outright abuse and violence. When I was a lawyer I saw increases in divorce and wrongful employment discharge cases in January as results of the Holiday’s end-of-the-year emotional untidiness. Life can be messy and the messes for some of us can become more visible this time of year.
This negative stuff may seem like an odd thing, a wet blanket, to toss out on the Advent Sunday focused on joy, but Joseph’s story, the one we heard Olivia read has an angle of sorrow and messiness, even as it has one of great joy . . . and they are both related. We tend to hear the story as Joseph just getting this great news that he gets to help bring in the baby Jesus and name him Emmanuel. But the story actually starts with Joseph in a very distressing situation, a mess. He’s found out that Mary, his betrothed, is pregnant and he knows that the child cannot be his. The fledgling family relationship at the start appears to be upset, on the brink of ending. Joseph is going to leave Mary, break off the betrothal.
There’s a hint in the angel’s message to him that this is more than a little distressing for Joseph. In the translation we heard Joseph is told not to be afraid, but the Greek word is “phobeo” the same word used by Gabriel to tell Mary not to flee in fear, it actually means “to put to flight by terrifying, (to scare away).” To put it bluntly, Joseph is very distressed that Mary’s carrying a baby that is not his, and that his relationship is in jeopardy, and for all he knows its over. In the ordinary course of things Joseph has reason to think Mary’s dumping him or has been unfaithful and just doesn’t care about the relationship.
While Joseph is being thoughtful by planning to divorce Mary quietly, the relationship at the very start of the telling of this Nativity story appears to have a kind of dysfunction that would make “blue” pretty much anyone’s Christmas, loss of a loved one, loss of trust, loss of face over a divorce. Tension. That is pretty heavy stuff. And even after Joseph learns the joyful Truth that Mary was not unfaithful and the relationship is not in jeopardy, the next thing he knows in the verses that follow our lesson is their family is in grave danger as Herod’s government sets out to kill Jesus. So the whole family has to flee to Egypt until the government changes hands and it is safe to go home.
Any way we look at the Christmas story, it begins with blue on the edges for the Holy Family, if not filling the picture completely. We get to know how the story turns out, who this Holy Family is, and that their responses to apparent tragedies made not only Mary and Joseph better people, but saved Jesus and allowed him to become who and what he becomes. Making each of us and all the world better ever since. Because a terrified and confused couple in a very “blue” time stopped and listened and heard God speaking they, were led to protect and nurture and raise a Son out of what seemed like a darkened sky, but instead turned out to be in the hue of “just before dawn blue” when light breaks though.
To borrow from Diana Butler Bass again it’s the blue from “that time when the deepest dark is just infused with hints of light. Blue holds the promise that the sun will rise, and that even after the bleakest, coldest, longest night, the light will break forth, as the new day arrives . . . [See b]lue may be the color of sadness, but blue is also the color of hope.” 3
And actually the whole arc of the Gospel stories have joyful news that is joyful precisely because of the messes in life. Personal, relational, communal and global messes. There is joy precisely because of the delivery of salvation from the messes and the promise of such delivery. There is the great promise and the great hope that we discussed last week, the hope that humanity can get through its messes through Jesus’ Way by being God’s instruments of peace (which we talked about two weeks ago) by bringing love into the world (which we will talk about next week).
The joy to the world at this time of year is not joy because of material gain or personal prosperity. It is joy to the world because Jesus’ Way offers a path to personal peace, and peace to a not so peaceful world. It offers an end to the curse of hate and violence and war. It offers a Way where no more sins and sorrows grow. It’s a Way that offers a dawning light in the darkest blue of night. The Way Jesus taught and lived and gave to us boiled down is this:
God is love, believe in love, love love and be love.
The joy is that that Way greatly lessens personal and societal messes. It shines the light of God –LOVE– into darkness. In, and out, of the darkest of times the Light, the “Son,” of God always, always, always rises. The coming of dawn– heaven– is always, always, always breaking in. That’s. The. Joy. To. The. World!
1. Bass, Diana Butler, “ Forget red and green: Make it a blue holiday instead,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/25/forget-red-and-green-make-it-a-blue-holiday-instead/?utm_term=.388fe14eff8d
3. Bass, Diana Butler, “ Forget red and green: Make it a blue holiday instead,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/25/forget-red-and-green-make-it-a-blue-holiday-instead/?utm_term=.388fe14eff8d
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