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

The year was 1865 and it was Christmas Eve. Phillips Brooks, a thirty-year-old Episcopal priest from Philadelphia was in the Holy Land, and he traveled by horseback from Jerusalem to the tiny village of Bethlehem to worship that evening at the Church of the Nativity. The service was five hours long. He was profoundly and forever moved by that experience. So much so, that he later wrote what was going to be a children’s carol to sing at his church in Philadelphia—a one-off, if you will. The carol, capturing his experience, we know today as “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” He probably never imagined that it would outlive that first performance by the children in his church. But he expressed eternal truths—he told of a longing that has sustained and encouraged all of us for generations: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting Light, the hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.”

This is why we come together to celebrate that everlasting Light—an echo, if you will, of the gospel lesson you just heard: that The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Note that it’s present tense. The light shines. The light of Christ shines. Jesus didn’t come once for one generation. Jesus lives, and that’s the great Good News of the message that we bring to you—that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. Henri Nouwen said, “The miracle of the Incarnation is not only that Christ came, lived, died and rose among us, but Christ continues to come, to live, to die and to rise in our midst.”

Hearkening back to 1865, you’ll recall that it was the end of four years of bloody battle—the Civil War—the deadliest war in US history. In April, the Civil War formally ended, and then, less than a week later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. It had been a dark year, and so Phillips Brooks’s words of the everlasting Light and the hopes and fears of all the years being met in thee tonight is a message that we continue to need to hear.

We know that this year in Bethlehem, they’ve canceled the Christmas services, understandably so. As we look at the wars continuing to rage in the Holy Land, Ukraine, Sudan, and other troubled spots across the world, we hope and believe in the everlasting Light: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Because Christ lives, it makes it possible to hold together heartbreak and hope.

If you look across the arc of history, we see how those led by that light have helped to live lives of meaning that matter and make a difference. Our Canon Historian, Jon Meacham, wrote a book a few years ago entitled The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. He makes this point: “To know what has come before is to be armed against despair. If the men and women of the past, with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites, could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to create a freer, stronger nation, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and take another step toward that most enchanting and elusive of destinations: a more perfect Union.”

In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln, in March of 1865, spoke of looking toward a hopeful future: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.” We’re still longing and working for that just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. Lincoln said, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve, 1944, and a small cabin deep in the woods in Germany, during the Battle of the Bulge. A mother named Elisabeth and her son Fritz knew that the father of the house would not be home for Christmas Eve. So, they planned to have a very simple meal together. Then there was a knock on the door. When they opened the door standing there were two American soldiers and a third soldier grievously wounded and bleeding to death in the snow. Now, Elisabeth and Fritz knew the rules. They could be shot for providing comfort and aid to the enemy, but Elisabeth looked at that young soldier bleeding in the snow, and she imagined he was not much older than her own son. So, she welcomed them in knowing the risk that she was taking. They added more potatoes to make the simple meal stretch. Then, just as they were settling down, there was another knock on the door. This time it was four German soldiers who had seen the cabin light. They had gotten separated from their company. Elisabeth looked at them and said, You’re going to have to put your weapons in the shed. They protested, but she said, “It is the Holy Night and there will be no shooting here.” So, they put their arms away. She collected the arms from the American soldiers and put them in the shed also. Then the four German soldiers entered the small cabin with the American soldiers.

Initially it was a little tense, but Elisabeth’s humanity changed everything. They offered up some rations they had. It turned out that one of the German soldiers was a medic, and he started to tend the wounded American soldier. Before they sat down for the meal, Elisabeth prayed—she prayed for peace. They all cried because you see, they all wanted the same thing. Their deepest longing was for peace and to go home and be with their families. That Christmas Eve was a miracle story. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. When morning came, the soldiers went their separate ways.

When Fritz became an adult, he immigrated to the United States and one of his deepest desires was to see if he could find one of the soldiers from that miraculous Christmas Eve. He wrote an article that appeared in Reader’s Digest. He put the story out on Unsolved Mysteries and by divine intervention, a chaplain at a nursing home heard that story and it sounded familiar to him. He knew he’d heard that story somewhere and he went to talk to one of the residents. Sure enough, he was one of the American soldiers. Fritz flew to meet him. It so deeply touched both of their lives. Fritz—recalling the lessons learned from that evening—said, “The inner strength of a single woman, who, by her wits and intuition, prevented potential bloodshed, taught me the practical meaning of the words ‘good will toward mankind.’” He continued, “I remember mother and those seven young soldiers, who met as enemies and parted as friends, right in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge.” The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

Fast forward to this day, December 23rd, two years ago. Former Washington Post columnist and Cathedral friend Michael Gerson wrote a deeply profound article entitled “This Christmas, hope may feel elusive. But despair is not the answer.” In the article, Michael made public that he had terminal cancer. He wasn’t going to die right away, but his time was short. You knew that he realized he didn’t have time to write anything other than the deepest truths. He wrote: “On Christmas, we consider the disorienting, vivid evidence that hope wins. If true, it is a story that can reorient every human story. It means that God is with us, even in suffering. It is the assurance, as from a parent, as from an angel, as from a savior: It is okay. And even at the extreme of death (quoting Julian of Norwich): ‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”

I leave you this night with the fourth verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It’s a prayer really, and it seems particularly appropriate.

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell: O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” Amen.


The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope