All of you who walked in darkness (you who know) the fear of night -
Now rejoice and sing with gladness; come and see the wondrous light!
God has turned your tears to songs, lifting burdens, righting wrongs.
God sent us a tiny boy, bringing hope and peace and joy.
In one little baby’s birth, God (came) down to love the earth.~ Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
All of you who walked in darkness. Anyone walking in darkness these days? You know, like the prophet Isaiah mentioned in our very first Bible verse (Isaiah 9:2)?
Wednesday was the first official day of what’s called astronomical winter, better known as the shortest day - and the longest night - of the year. Some churches have a Longest Night service on or around December 21st. It’s offered especially for those struggling with what spiritual guides have long called “the dark night of the soul.”
We all go through dark times in our lives. So, I wonder: These days, what does darkness look like or feel like to you? What kind of darkness is part of your life?
Today, I’m remembering a Christmas I spent several decades ago in an Allegheny Mountain city called Pittsburgh. If you’re not familiar with Pittsburgh, it’s situated on three rivers, where the Allegheny and Monongahela combine to form the Ohio River. There are more than four hundred bridges in Pittsburgh and more than a dozen tunnels. One day in that Christmas season, I was stuck for the longest time - in a tunnel.
It had been snowing. A lot. The traffic was so backed up, it gave new meaning to “stop…and…go.” At the church I served as a new, baby priest, we had begun rehearsing music for a concert to be offered in the spring: Handel’s Messiah! Even though I’d been a choirboy all my life, singing Messiah was new for me. So, I bought a cassette tape recording (!!) and was listening to it in my car that day, while I was stuck in that tunnel.
You may not know that Messiah was first performed in 1742 - to celebrate Easter. It does have a Christmas portion, parts of which we’ve been hearing lately, thanks to Lyn Joyner. One of Messiah’s arias or solos is sung a bass. It’s in a minor key, and the darkness you hear about is in the words we just heard in that first lesson from Isaiah. The aria is offered jointly by the bass soloist and cellos, singing and playing in unison.
This creates “a dark timbre…a foreboding atmosphere…(The) irregular phrases…create (an image of) uneven steps of the people (the children of Israel) as they walk into (their deep) darkness” (Alex Burns, classicalexburns.com, 11/20/20). Like the people who are stuck in stop and go traffic on a long winter’s drive through a tunnel.
The rhythm of Isaiah’s words, masterfully set by Handel in his Messiah, words and music playing in my car in that tunnel, still lives in me, today: The pe-ee-ple that / wal-al-ked, that / wal-al-ked in da-ark-ness, that /wal-al-ked in da-ar-ar-ar /arr-ark-ness. For those of you who have never heard that actually sung? You get the idea.
If you keep listening, minor key turns into major. For awhile, anyway. Then back to minor. Handel turns the land of deep darkness into the land of the shadow of death, that familiar phrase from Psalm 23, often prayed at funerals. Then, the aria becomes major and full of light again, but with that minor undertone still haunting the listener.
Handel’s Messiah is masterful. That 18th century composer was able to marry darkness and light in a way that’s authentic to our lives - and to the life of Jesus. People will walk in darkness. The question is: When will the people ever see that great light?
There’s another musical and theological connection I want to make with you today. It’s at the beginning and the end of that old hymn tune with a brand, new text - the one I sang a little while ago: All of you who walked in darkness, (you who know) the fear of night turns into: In one little baby’s birth, God (came) down to love the earth.
What I mean is this: While darkness can mean down - I’m down in the dumps - and light can mean up - Lighten up! Look up: Do you see that star? These words are also true: Down in a lowly manger / the humble Christ was born / and God sent us salvation /that blessed Christmas morn. In other words: People, look up…and down.
The poet Christina Rossetti put it this way, in words also found in a Christmas carol: Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine; love was born at Christmas, star and angels gave the sign (Hymnal 1982 #84). “Gentle Mary,” laying her child “lowly in a manger” (Margaret Sandresky), treasures all those words spoken by the angels. She ponders those words, deep down in her heart (Luke 2:19).
On this Christmas Day, I’m here to say there’s one song that got it wrong. God is not “watching us from a distance.” As Diana Butler Bass says, “God is with us, here, in history, on earth, and in our flesh. This isn’t a story of heaven. It’s a story of the world, for human beings and for all creation” (“The Cottage,” 12/25/22).
Yes, God, who is love divine, has “come on down (!)” - right smack dab into our lives, even into the deepest, darkest parts of our hearts. Emmanuel: God is with us! And the person who shows us best how to receive that love? Mary. She lived God’s love.
How did Jesus the baby become Jesus the man of love? Mary. Mary must have taught Jesus about that get-down, kneel-down, come-down love. Jesus surely learned, at Mary’s knee, something about how to get down with people and meet them where they are - not where they aren’t. Before he grew up to become a man of incarnate love, Jesus, with Mary’s help, learned to get down, to kneel down, to come down to the level of human beings, eye to eye, before Jesus invited them - as Jesus invites us on this a Christmas Day - to go with him to places we would never otherwise dare to go.
Sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus, let us pray. God, help us. Help us in our darkness. Help us look for signs of your love - stars and sunlight, angels and saints of all kinds. Help us receive your love, already come down this Christmas. Help us become your come-down love, this Christmas season - and all the seasons of our lives.
~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
Priest in Charge
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
1508 S. White Station Road
Memphis, TN 38117