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Don't be Afraid of the Dark – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

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Br. Nicholas BartoliLuke 1.26–38 Advent 4

Let’s imagine for a moment, that we live in a small village some 2,000 years ago. We’ve watched as days have grown shorter, the nights longer, and the weather colder. The last autumn harvest of olives and figs has come and gone, while the wheat and barley have been planted in hopes for a plentiful, fertile spring. But, this deepening darkness surrounding us seems to feed any shadows we may have in our hearts, planting seeds of fear, hopelessness and despair. The elders, the astrologers, they hold out hope. Now, they say, is the time to look for the signs of solstice, signs of the sun returning to lengthen the days and banish the darkness; to banish our fears, and renew our hopes that the wheat and barley weren’t planted in vain.

Nowadays, of course, our astronomy is much more advanced, so we can say something like “The December solstice of the northern hemisphere, which occurs when the North Pole is tilted farthest away from the sun — tilted at 23.5° to be precise — will occur this evening, December 21st, at 6:03pm Eastern Standard Time.” It certainly sounds like we’ve come a long way. We can even get our fresh olives, figs, wheat, and barley year round, and all it takes is a trip to the nearest brightly-lit supermarket. And none of us are actually afraid of the sun not returning are we? After all, we know we have the March Equinox on March 20th at 12:57pm to look forward to, right?

Well, I can’t say I’m entirely convinced. For example, we’ve all heard of or experienced the winter blues. Psychologists tell us this is a real phenomenon, a sliding scale with some people’s mood being affected more than others. We’re told to get more sun, take melatonin and vitamin D supplements, use light therapy, and eat more omega-3 fatty acids, among other suggestions.

These remedies do sometimes work, to one degree or another, and so point to a potential biochemical cause. Or maybe, just maybe, buried deep in our mammalian brains or in our collective subconscious, we’re afraid. Maybe the sun won’t be returning this year, and we’ll descend into an ever-deepening darkness with no hope in sight. And maybe, we fear that the darkness in our hearts is here to stay. And this fear doesn’t seem much-helped no matter how many trips we make to brightly-lit supermarkets.

Now, imagine for a moment, a young girl about 2,000 years ago, recently engaged to a man named Joseph. Her name is Mary, and she leads a simple life in her small village of Nazareth. For a poor family like hers the time after the last harvest holds with it the threat of a meager winter, though her recent dowry from Joseph’s family will help. And though it might be the season of long, dark nights, her fear is tinged with hope, because Joseph seems to be a good, God-fearing man, and so their engagement makes the future seem a little brighter, and the fear further away.

And then, one day, Mary gets a surprise visit from Gabriel, an angel of God. The angel greets her with blessings, but this miraculous and awesome vision overwhelms and confuses Mary. Then Gabriel says, “Don’t be afraid, Mary.” Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, because you will “bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High… the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

Angel visits… can be terrifying, so it’s hard to blame Mary for how she reacts at first. But, to say she recovers rather well would be an understatement. She says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” I believe that says a lot about the character and purity of heart of this young woman from Nazareth, about her willingness to surrender so completely to God’s will. And, of course, this is good news for us, too.

The good news is that Gabriel’s announcement to Mary is a sign that our time of darkness will not last, that the night will surrender to the dawn, that the Son of God is coming into the world to give us Light, Love, and Truth, and to free us from fear.

Now, in these days, even with our own experiences of the winter blues, we might find it a bit silly that people in Mary’s time would be afraid of the sun not returning — on any level. After all, they have plenty of experience living within the rhythms of nature; and much more intimately than most of us can probably imagine. So perhaps this feeling of fear is really based on something more fundamental, the cycle of seasons being in service to this deeper fear.

In other words, maybe it’s not a coincidence that our home, Earth, is tilted at 23 and a half degrees, giving us the seasons. Maybe, as our solar system was forming and swirling around, God nudged us a tiny bit to create a merciful gift to serve as a reminder. A reminder that death and darkness never have the last word over new birth and the brightness of light. A reminder that Christ’s coming is in some ways really a returning, an incarnation of the Word that was with God before all things. A reminder that original goodness and light were here before the fall into sin and darkness, and that even in our darkest moments we can realize the hope of return and rebirth.

And so, the early church, sometime in the middle of the fourth century, chose December 25th as the perfect day to celebrate the sacred birth of Jesus Christ into the world. Jesus comes to us in the middle of the longest night of the year, to rekindle the light of truth in our hearts and enlighten us with love. As Gregory of Nazianzus, a 4th-century bishop of Constantinople, puts it, we anticipate “the arrival of God among us, so that we might go to God, or more precisely, return to [God]. So that stripping off the old humanity we might put on the new; and as in Adam we were dead, so in Christ we might be made alive, be born with him, rise again with him… A miracle, not of creation, but rather of re-creation.”

Our yearly anticipation of Christmas is about hope amidst darkness, hope of being re-created anew in Christ, a hope made possible by God having lived through one of us, through Jesus. But it can be very hard to hold on to hope sometimes, especially when we’re suffering and afraid. So on this day of longest night, a solstice Sunday, if you find yourself trapped and struggling in darkness and pain, or suffering in the shadows of a heavy heart, I just want to say… there is hope in the light of Christ, that miracles of love do happen, regularly, and that the darkness does not overcome the light.

But, maybe that still sounds too good to be true for some of us. If we’re in a place of darkness how do we really know there’s hope? Well, here’s what I do know: there was a time in my life when I was drowning in a pit of darkness so deep that even as I kept trying to climb out a small part of me believed there was no hope at all. And then, one day, when everything seemed darkest, and it felt as though the night would never end, a miracle happened. By God’s love and mercy, Christ’s light entered my heart to find newly fertile ground. On that new day I came to know the awesome truth, that the Son of God was there shining brightly all along if only I could see it. And I know now that nothing is impossible with God.

So if you hurt, if you suffer, if you’re angry, or if you’re lonely, please, don’t be afraid. It’s OK, because the gloom that enshrouds us always yields to God’s Love. What we have in Gabriel’s promise to Mary is hope, hope that Christ’s light is returning to herald the birth of a new dawn in our hearts. Those horrible, dark, and painful places, those long nights without hope, always end with the start of new day. The fruit of Jesus’ birth, the miracle of Christ’s light and love, it truly exists for all of us, and it will one day, soon, deliver us from darkness and pain. Look, and listen, you are not alone, the Son of God is coming, so please, don’t be afraid.

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3 Comments

  1. Annmarie on January 29, 2015 at 09:48

    To my Brother Nicholas,
    That hit home…but I have faith and hope in Jesus and I give myself to him to do as he will.

  2. Mary Ann Ryan on December 30, 2014 at 17:49

    Dear Brother Nicholas
    Thank you for this beautiful and hopeful sermon. Your own experience of being saved from the darkness and fear makes it all the more profound.

  3. Ruth West on December 25, 2014 at 22:08

    Dear Brother, this was an excellent sermon. So many truths unveiled! The story becomes one,” not of creation, but of re-creation.” When all things become new, and we can truly know the Christ who came to change us, to save us from ourselves.
    He delivers us from fear, anger, and loneliness.
    Thank you for showing us the way.

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