The Midrash of Christmas: It Came at Midnight

Isaiah 60:1-6
Luke 2:8-12
December 15, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

The theme of my Advent series this year is “Christmas Midrash,” and every week of Advent, my description of what midrash means is going to get shorter because I assume that you will have heard this definition in at least one of the previous weeks.  In brief then, ancient Jewish rabbis often added extra dialogue, story details, and commentary to scripture in order to help people better understand it, and that commentary on the scriptures is known as midrash.  It is valued in Judaism, often quoted and studied along with the biblical writings.  Christianity has generally frowned on adding anything to scripture except at Christmas.  Over the centuries of the church, so many imaginative details have been added to the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth that it is hard for us to tell anymore which part of what we think of as the nativity story is actually found in the Bible.  As a result, lots of preachers spend the weeks of Advent warning their congregations about these embellishments to the biblical narrative — this Christian midrash — but I am spending our advent celebrating them because I believe, along with those ancient rabbis, that good midrash doesn’t contradict the Bible; good midrash accentuates and clarifies the biblical message. 

The first week of Advent, then, I talked about how the addition of an innkeeper to the biblical story came to function as our midrash of confession, and last week I talked about how tradition of the animals in the stable developed as a way of representing Christ’s gospel of reconciliation and peace with all of the world.  Today, I am going to talk not about a character but about the setting of the scene itself.  In our stories and in our carols of Christmas, Jesus’ birth had traditionally come in the Silent Night, at the midnight clear, when the city sleeps and the night is at its darkest.  Today, I will talk about the midrash of midnight.

Luke 2:6-20   “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

What is the darkest place you have ever been in?  Maybe the darkest place you can remember experiencing was deep within a cave when the Park Ranger turned off the lights and the blackness around you was so thick that you lost all sense of your position in space; you were so disoriented that you began to sway on your feet afraid you would lose your balance and topple to the floor.  Or maybe you can remember a night at a summer camp when the clouds blotted out the stars, when the moon had not yet risen, and the darkness was so impenetrable that you lay awake imaging monsters lurking outside the tent.  When we tell the story of Christmas, we never speak of Jesus’ birth occurring on a hot summer day when the sun is shining brightly and Bethlehem is full of happy people bustling about their business just beyond the stable door; we always imagine Jesus being born in the silence of the night, just at that point when the earth has traveled the farthest it can from the sun and the cosmos holds its breath to see if the planet will spin off into empty space or begin its trip back toward daylight.  Jesus, we say, was born at midnight in the midwinter at the exact moment in time when the world was as dark and as cold as it can be.  You may argue that this tradition comes directly from the Bible because doesn’t it say that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night when the angel announced Jesus’ birth?  But while it is true that the gospel of Luke says that it was dark when the angels appeared, the angel announces to those sleepy shepherds that Jesus’ birth has already occurred:  “unto you is born this day a Savior,” the angel proclaims.  We don’t know how many hours have elapsed between his birth and the angel’s announcement, and even if Jesus was born after the sun had set, there is certainly nothing in scripture to suggest that the birth occurred at midnight, “amid the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night.” (see Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-15)

Nevertheless, this midrash of a midnight birth took such strong hold in Christian consciousness that many Christians today hold midnight masses so that they can begin their Christmas worship at the stroke of 12, in commemoration with the traditional time of Jesus’ birth.  Even the less stalwart among us may not stay up until midnight, but we still usher in the baby Jesus with candles and the singing of “Silent Night” because somehow it just wouldn’t feel like Christmas if the baby Jesus entered the world while all the lights are still on.  This is our midnight midrash.  It is not biblical and it was not a part of the practice of the early church.  In fact, it took a few centuries before Christians even began to celebrate Christmas at all.  The first Christians weren’t especially interested in Jesus’ birthday; the focal point of the liturgical year was Good Friday and Easter, the date of which everyone agreed upon give or take a week.  The Bible, however, gave no indication of when Jesus was born and since birthdays weren’t a big deal in the ancient world, no one spent a lot of energy thinking about when Jesus’ birth should be celebrated.  It wasn’t until at least 200 years had gone by before theologians began to debate the date of the nativity.  The first date proposed for Jesus’ birthday, based on calculations we would find strange today, was May 20th.  This date was quickly rejected by other theologians who said it was much too late.  “Jesus was actually born in April,” they argued, while still others made a case for a March birthday.  One early church writer noted dryly that there is no month of the year that wasn’t at one time a candidate for Jesus’ birth.  As we all know, however, eventually the western church adopted December 25th as the day to celebrate the mass designating Christ’s birth (hence, Christ mass).  Like the cause for the Grinch’s small heart, no one is quite sure of the reason:  it may have been a result of new calendar calculations or it may have been a PR campaign to try to Christianize pagan winter solstice celebrations, but whatever the reason, theologians found the symbolism of the date appropriate.  What better metaphor could be found for the coming of Jesus into our world than the day when the earth ends its travel into darkness and turns its pole once again toward the sun?  Once the winter solstice was linked to Christmas, it was easy to add the tradition that Jesus’ birth came at midnight, the exact moment when everything turns from ever increasing darkness to the coming of the light because while our knowledge of calendars and celestial phenomenon may have changed in the intervening 1500 years, one thing has not changed:  those early Christians knew just as we do what it is to live in the darkness of despair and longed for a light to break upon them.

I asked you to think of the darkest place you have ever been in, suggesting that maybe it was a cave, or the darkness outside your tent in the woods.  There is, however, another kind of darkness that might have come to mind.  Maybe the darkest place you can remember is the day you hid in your bedroom trying to escape the sound of your parents arguing, or the years of Junior High when the taunts of bullies filled your days.  Maybe it was the darkness of an addiction that clung to you with such ferocity you were afraid it would destroy everything.  Maybe the dark descended upon you when you heard of yet another school shooting, or you watched the terror of children separated from their parents at the border, or you saw a swastika splashed across a wall.  For some, maybe the darkest place you have ever known came at the moment when the person you loved more than life itself passed away.

We know what it is to be in places of physical darkness where the sun cannot penetrate the gloom around us, but most of us also unfortunately also know the more terrifying darkness of despair or grief, the darkness of guilt unforgiven, or the darkness of fear for our future.  For these times, the darkness is so heavy upon us that the only phrase to describe that darkness is the midnight of the soul, and it is this spiritual despair that informs the midrash of Christ’s birth at midnight.  Whether the baby Jesus emerged from the womb at the actual strike of twelve or not, the grown Jesus certainly entered into the lives of the people during the midnight of their souls.  As Jesus preached across Galilee, he encountered men whose bodies were wracked by disease, woman who had been shunned by their neighbors, tax collectors heavy with guilt and shame, even the rich and the self-righteous whose hearts had been twisted by their money and power, and had yet to recognize their own blindness.  The gospels are full of the darkness of the human condition, so much so that if you are a middle class American with 2.4 children, living in a comfortable home, well-respected in your community, hard-working, healthy, and happy, who has never experienced a moment of regret or heartbreak, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Bible that reminds you of yourself.  If, on the other hand, you have ever been bent by grief, rejected by your community, scrabbled to keep your family fed, been eaten by guilt, paralyzed by sin, or simply too weary to get up from your pallet to walk, you will see yourself over and over again in the gospel story.

These sad stories are not the ones we usually tell at Christmas; a time we are more likely to hear elves promising us a holly jolly time.  The dichotomy between the glad tidings of our carols and festivities and the heartache some are experiencing during these weeks has led some churches to hold a special service in December that they call “Blue Christmas Worship,” geared toward those who are struggling with the holidays and need a place to find solace for their grief.  I have resisted holding a special service for the grieving and the hurting because frankly, I believe that if we are not preaching a Christmas message that addresses the suffering of one’s heart every week, then we have missed the true message of Christmas.  The midrash of midnight may be midrash but it is true to the gospel proclamation:  Jesus comes to you exactly in that moment when you are feeling so lost that you are afraid that you are about to spin off into the cold emptiness of space, when your heart hurts so badly that you wonder if the pain will swallow you, when your despair is as dark as the deepest darkness you have ever known.  Christ comes to shine in that darkness; to take your hand, lift you up, hold you close, and promise that the dawn will come again. 

A few years ago, a young woman was taking a course in Christian Education and she was assigned the task of developing a lesson based on Isaiah 9:2 which says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.”  She searched the campus for the darkest place she could find and on the day of her presentation, she led her classmates and professor to an old racquetball court in the basement of the gym.  She took them inside, closed the door, and told them to seat themselves around the room.  She then read the phrase, “You are people who live in a land of deep darkness,” and she turned out the light.  The darkness was so sudden and so complete that a few students gasped but then it became absolutely silent.  The young woman said nothing but just waited as the darkness and silence clung about them like a heavy curtain until it felt as if everyone else had disappeared and each was totally alone in that place.  Finally, in a hushed voice, the young woman said, “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined,” and she lit a small candle.  The candle did not dispel every shadow in the room – in fact it barely reached to the edges of the space – but as the class blinked in the candlelight they realized that there was one thing they could see clearly: they could see each other’s faces.  Some were smiling, some were surprised, some even had tears glistening on their cheeks, but the small light that penetrated their darkness enabled them to see the one thing that could lift their fear and despair:  they saw that they were not alone.   

Christ enters our world in the deepest darkness of our midnights and brings a light that shows us that we are not alone.  The doubters would say, “So what good does this do for us?  Christ can’t make my hurt go away or cure me of all temptation,” but it turns out that the worst darkness of all is not the pain of grief or guilt or injustice or poverty; it is the pain of loneliness.  We can find a way through our struggles, and even come to a place of acceptance and meaning, if we know that we are not in the darkness alone.  Christ brings light into our darkness so that we will see the faces of those who care for us, who will forgive us when we fail and lift us when we fall, who will be the rock upon which we can stand, the shoulder on which we can cry, and the one who will pray words on our behalf when we have no words left for ourselves.  No matter how tired we have become, no matter how broken our hearts or how tattered our souls, Christ enters our darkened world and says, “I am here; Emmanuel, God with us.”   Look around you and see him in these faces right here, sitting in these pews with you.      

This is the message of our midnight midrash: even if the darkness is so deep that you are afraid you will spin off into the emptiness, lift your eyes and see the light of the Christ drawing you back home.  See the faces of those in this community whose smiles are for you so that your heart might ache just a little less.  See our hands held out to you, helping you to stand once again, and see our mercy forgiving you just as we ourselves know that we have been forgiven much.  The light of Christ enters into all of our midnights so that in his light, we can see the many faces of love encircling our hearts and take hold of the promise that we are not alone.  

I invite you now to join me in prayer as we embrace the light of Christ for ourselves and extend it to all of those who need to hear the promise of light in their darkness today.  When I say, “The light shines in the darkness,” please respond, “and the darkness will not overcome it.”

During this Advent season, we pray to the one called Emmanuel rejoicing in the promise that you are with us and we are not alone.  The light shines in the darkness… and the darkness will not overcome it.

We pray for those in our community and around our world who have no food to eat, who must listen to their children cry in hunger.  May all people find the generosity needed to share with others so that their hunger may be relieved.  The light shines in the darkness… and the darkness will not overcome it.

We pray for those who face temptations and struggle to overcome them afraid that their own weaknesses are hurting those they care deeply about.  May they find strength in a community of encouragement surrounding them.  The light shines in the darkness… and the darkness will not overcome it.

We pray for those who worry over decisions that must be made, who are tired from the daily needs of caregiving, or who are coping with difficult relationships.  May they see hands reaching out to them to guide them through the confusion of this day.  The light shines in the darkness… and the darkness will not overcome it.

We pray for those whose hearts are heavy with grief, for whom the holidays are a constant reminder of loved ones gone.  May your bring them the strength to bear the sorrow that will never be gone and the wounds that will never completely heal, so that even in the midst of their grief they will find a way to live blessed and meaningful lives.  The light shines in the darkness… and the darkness will not overcome it.

And now we take a moment to say out loud the names of those we wish to hold in prayer during this Christmas season.  I invite you to speak aloud your prayers.

God, you have promised to be with us bringing light into the midnight of our souls.  May we hold fast to that promise so that we may both experience the light of Christ and be the light of Christ for others this season.  Amen.