In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

It was supposed to be a joyful and restorative weekend. After the long period of isolation, necessitated by COVID, I was reconnecting with a group of dear friends that I hadn’t seen for almost three years, for a long weekend away in the remote mountains of Pennsylvania. In many ways it was focused on the simple things. We cooked together, shared meals, talked for hours, laughed, enjoyed time, and the beauty of nature. It was exactly as I hoped it would be, reconnecting with people I loved. Until late in the afternoon of our second day together, when a conversation quickly and unexpectedly strayed into a very tense topic.

It was clear that we held quite different opinions, but we continued to engage respectfully and thoughtfully. And when the conversation ended, everyone moved on with their evening, preparing for dinner, having a drink. Someone even pulled out the guitar and began singing and others joined as well. Everyone continued on, that is but me. That conversation among friends had touched on something deeply personal for me and had left me shaken, feeling vulnerable, questioning the depth of connection that had been so nurtured in our shared time together. What I was feeling was that sense of shame, that terrible, that isolating emotion that rises up from time to time. My overwhelming desire in moments like that is to become invisible.

This particular response is one I know well and one I turn to often in such circumstances. So I quietly snuck away without others noticing, and retreated to the bedroom, shutting the door and leaving the lights off. Now those of us who live in a city can easily forget this fact. But when you are out in a sparsely populated, remote area, and the sun goes down, it truly gets dark. There’s no artificial light, just deep darkness. Sitting alone in that darkness, I will say I felt a little bit ridiculous. Yet the pain and the really strongly felt desire to withdraw were very real. The raw and desperate words of the psalmist certainly resonated. “My friend and neighbor you have put away from me and darkness is my only companion.” From a distance, I heard the sounds of the guitar, my friend’s beautiful singing voice, laughter, the clanging of pans and utensils in the kitchen. The contrast between the two scenes unfolding under the same roof only made me feel worse. “Stop being so sensitive and dramatic. Get over it. Pull yourself together”, I told myself, “Go back out there. Enjoy yourself even if you have to fake it.”

Now, it should be no surprise to you that this sort of self-talk didn’t help me at all. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t manufacture the joy that everyone else was feeling. Sitting there now feeling both isolated and annoyed with myself for not shaking it off, I heard a soft knock on the door. “Can we come and sit with you?” two of my friends asked, “We know that was, that was really hard and we don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. We just don’t want you to be alone.” And so, as strange as it might sound, the three of us sat together in the darkness for a while, not saying a word. In truth, nothing needed to be said. Sometimes actions really do speak louder than words.

The sorrow and pain I was feeling in that moment certainly didn’t evaporate, but I also knew that there was deep love and care living right next to them and that, that made all the difference. We all need others to sit with us in the moments of darkness in our lives. In a very real way that is why we gather this night. To be together, to be in the presence of God who offers healing and peace, as we confront the sorrows and struggles that emerge in this time of year, as the culture surrounding us bombards us with relentless messages of holiday cheer, with insidious messages to buy and consume more as a path to happiness and fulfillment.

With the repeated musical declaration ringing all over, “tis the season to be jolly”, we can acknowledge that for many it is anything but that. It is a time for many when sadness, grief, isolation, and loss are acutely felt. Some are confronting a recent death, loss of loved ones, forced to move through familiar traditions and routines for the first time without those whom they love. Those whose presence permeates all the memories of the holidays. Some are estranged from parents, siblings, children, other loved ones, feeling that sense of isolation and brokenness of relationship only sharpened by gatherings of family and friends that are so characteristic of this time of year. Some are without spouse, partner, or family of any sort, grieved by the bitter sting of loneliness, wondering why their desire and longing for companionship has not been met. These of course are but just a few examples of the sorrows of the heart that are so intensely magnified at this time of year. The Episcopal priest and writer, Fleming Rutledge, reminds us, “Advent begins in the dark.” Truth is, for many, it can feel like it stays right there throughout and ends in the same place. The joy of Christmas, both in its secular and religious celebrations, can feel so dissonant, so out of step with actual experience.

And in what is perhaps the most confounding part of that process that can leave us assuming something is wrong with us, because our feelings are not in tune with the world around us. We come to this holy space tonight because all of us, in one form or another, experience that sorrow that surrounds this time of year. As a community, we gather this night and name the simple but often unstated truth, that it is okay to feel sadness. Doing so doesn’t make you any less faithful. It is okay to not feel captured by the holiday spirit and instead eagerly look to the end of this long holiday season. As a Christian community gathered together, we look to our faith to offer us insight and wisdom for the living of these days. The Christian faith asserts that the defining characteristic of this time surrounding Christmas is not a artificial or fleeting happiness, but an abiding hope. Hope that our God indeed keeps the promises God makes. It is possible to feel both sorrow and hope at the very same time. Indeed, it is a deeply faithful combination.

The gospel text before us this evening is the Song of Zechariah, who was the father of John the Baptist. The first chapter of Luke’s gospel tells the story of the angel Gabriel announcing to Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth thought to be barren, that Elizabeth would bear a son. When Zechariah did not immediately believe this incredible news, he was struck mute until the child was born and named. At which point words finally flowed from his lips as he offered his song of praise. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. He has come to his people and set them free”. At the very end of his song, there is a portion of text that rings out to us this night. “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the of peace.” In those few words is found our hope as Christians in this season. In the midst of the darkness, a light begins to shine. The day-spring from on high breaks upon all of us who sit in death’s shadow. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not and cannot overcome it. Zechariah’s song has long been used in the Daily Prayer of the Church as a song of praise in the morning.

For some 1500 years, the Church has taken up as her own Zechariah’s song, morning by morning each day, remembering and proclaiming this message of hope, this message of the dawn from on high. The essence of the Christmas message is that God is with us. To willingly turn each day to faith instead of despair is a practice of determined hope. We too are given the opportunity to join in this daily turn to hope, to trust God’s promise. Darkness is not our only companion. God is with us, and we are never, never alone. “Oh, come thou Day-spring from on high and cheer us by thy drawing nigh. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night and deaths dark shadows put to flight.” Amen.

Preacher

The Rev. Patrick Keyser

Priest Associate