[Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2:1-16]
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who live in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shone.” Tonight, we hear this line from the prophet Isaiah ring out through the Church. It was first written centuries ago, addressed by the prophet to people needing reassurance and hope as they wandered aimlessly and helplessly in the darkness of political oppression and tyranny. It echoes every year in the Church’s Christmas liturgies because darkness continues to befall the people of the world in every age, and we, too, need the reassurance of light to dispel our darkness and allow us to see clearly and thus live in hope.
Darkness envelops us in many ways: by the eclipse of God from our personal and communal lives, the deep shadows of moral confusion, or the black night of homelessness, abuse and violence, addictions, family breakdown, unemployment and so on. With such atrocities as the war in Ukraine, the migration of millions of refugees, and global trafficking in arms, drugs and even people, it feels very much like night has descended upon our entire planet. Differently from the people of ancient Israel, yet no less truly, we are a people that today walk in darkness. We need a light to pierce it and enlighten us with real hope.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” This message of hope is directed not only to the people for whom it was first written hundreds of years ago, but also to us today. Then it was a promise of what was to come; today the Church announces that promise as fulfilled. Isaiah linked the coming of the light with the birth of a child: “For a child has been born for us, a son given us.” The Gospel announces this child to be the one born of the Virgin Mary: “and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger….” The light has come, and this light is the newborn child, Jesus, born of Mary.
As we ponder further the Gospel passage, we learn that the light that is Jesus Christ dispels not only darkness but also fear. In fact, darkness and fear usually go together. Young children are not the only ones afraid of the dark. The darkness in which we find ourselves is engendering today an anxiety, a fear, that is increasingly widespread. Time and again we hear accounts of the enormous stress weighing heavily upon people right now, or of the anxiety with which even our young people are riddled. The darkness is leaving many of us very afraid indeed, at times even terrified.
Let’s heed carefully, then, the angelic message to the shepherds. We are told that, when at first the angel appears to them, “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” The night sky is filled with light. From the midst of that light come the words: “Do not be afraid.” Those words are spoken not only because the shepherds are terrified by the vision of a heavenly angel. They also address the widespread and deep anxiety holding human lives captive, the fear of the dark from which no one is immune. Be not afraid; a Saviour has been born to you: Christ the Lord.
When a child is afraid because of the dark, the fear vanishes as soon as the light comes on and Mum or Dad draw near. To be more specific, the light enables the child to see that Mum or Dad is close, and assurance of their presence quells the anxiety. Tonight, the light of the Gospel points to the presence among us of God Himself, incarnate in the child born of Mary. This is the presence that dispels our fear. God has come to us in Jesus Christ; God in the immensity of his power; God in the fullness of His love, which is stronger than anything, even death! Nothing can happen in our lives that God cannot transform for our good. So, don’t be afraid. God is with us.
All of this begs the question: what are we to do? Tonight, we hear the joyful announcement to all of humanity that light has come to dispel darkness and banish fear. What are we to do so that what is announced globally becomes a reality personally in the lives of each of us? The scriptural texts give us two directions to follow, two things we must do.
First, go to Jesus where he is to be found. The angels told the shepherds to go to Christ where he was to be found that night: in the tiny child born of Mary and placed in a manger at Bethlehem. The direction to us is to go to Christ where he is to be found now: in his sacred Word, and in the sacraments of the Church, most wondrously here in the Eucharist.
Second, we are to listen to what Jesus says and follow his teaching. As St. Paul explains, in Jesus God’s grace has appeared to bring salvation and train us how to live rightly. When we hear and heed all that Jesus teaches us, living as he tells us to, then his light envelops us, our darkness is dispelled, we realize we have no need to fear, and deep peace takes root in our hearts.
So, tonight, let us commit to go to Christ and follow him. The self-same Jesus who was born of Mary and encountered in a stable in Bethlehem is present with us tonight in the sacrament of his Body and Blood. May our minds be opened to receive his light, and our hearts readied to embrace the “self-controlled, upright and godly” lives that lead to peace.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
December 25th 2002