When I was a little girl, my biggest hope at Christmastime was not that Santa would bring me lots of presents or that I would get all the things I’d circled in the Sears Christmas Toy catalog. I enjoyed the colorful lights and looked forward to and ate far too many cookies, and I faithfully watched A Charlie Brown Christmas every year, but none of those things produced that kind of ‘I just can’t wait!” anticipation we normally associate with Christmas. The thing I got most excited about—and the reason I tried so hard to stay awake every year—was that I’d heard that at midnight on Christmas Eve, animals everywhere are blessed with human speech for just a few moments, a gift from God in honor of the holy part they played as peaceful and serene companions for the Christ child, born in the manger in Bethlehem.
At bedtime on Christmas Eve, I would kiss my mom goodnight, pad up the stairs in my footed pajamas, and climb up into bed, glancing over at my turtles in their bowl with the single plastic palm tree. Sometimes at night my cat would come sleep by my feet. Maybe that night, my turtles and cat would talk to each other. What would they sound like? I wondered. The turtles might have a kind of watery voice, I decided, and my cat would probably complain, because that’s just how she was. Across the room I could see all my well-loved stuffed animals—A bean bag lion, a honey-colored bear on four feet, a big stuffed Snoopy, a white Persian cat with green eyes (she had come with her own brush)—I expected them to talk too, because I loved them all as much as any real animals. What would they say with their first few words? What would we say, if we could use our voices only for a few moments at midnight? We would want to say something that truly mattered to us, something profound or very simple, about love and thanks, light and hope.
But when you’re little, staying up ‘til midnight is about as hard as flying to the moon, and I was never able to reach my goal. But that didn’t keep me from waking each Christmas morning, certain that it had happened anyway—that the animals had enjoyed their moments of speech—and I had simply missed it. And that was okay—there was always next year. My hope lived on.
When I was in second grade, though, my friend Michelle, who as a third grader was much wiser and more experienced than I was, felt she should relieve me of my beliefs in childish things. It’s a sad rite of passage that each of us encounters as we get older. We meet new people and bump into the beliefs—and disbeliefs—of the wider world around us. The ideas we encounter shape and mold us both for the better and the worse, and it may be some time—maybe years–before we are able to discern which is which. We might find out later in our lives that we gave up things we believed in simply because someone made fun of our belief, or we wrote off a dream as impossible just because another person thought so.
The hopeful, free energy of imagination childhood offers gradually gets replaced by order and planning, skill development and schedules. Our more serious minds take over. Soon we are building futures and establishing careers and those childhood fancies—where anything is possible and radiant hope is always real—seem to be part of a land far, far away, one we left long ago. Our rational adult minds say, Oh, that was just kid stuff—I know better now. And that—on a deep and profound level—is precisely why we need Christmas. Because while our adult minds weigh and measure and categorize and plan, it is our hearts that feel and hope and dream and love, connecting us with something infinitely larger than ourselves. When we can still the adult in us and make room for the child, our hearts open to the joy of the season, the Light comes again, our hope is reborn, and we know—maybe just for a few moments at midnight—that, no matter what we told ourselves, believing was never silly and all that is loved and loving will prove true, in God’s time. Our confidence is in Him.
Our Old Testament reading today reminds the children of Israel that God has not forgotten them or turned His back on them, and that something good is on the way. The people of Isaiah’s day were living through a dark and discouraging time. You may remember from our study of Isaiah that the whole book is about the themes of judgment and hope—judgment, because of the failure of the children of Israel to live up to their part of their covenant relationship with God, and hope, thanks to the never-ending promise of God’s unconditional love and God’s intention to reconcile and redeem these wayward, disobedient, and forever distractable children. In today’s scripture, Isaiah foretells the coming of Christ and gives them a reason for hope:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
It’s important to note here that God, through Isaiah, recognizes that this is a difficult and dark time for the people. He doesn’t say, Ignore it and look to Me; he doesn’t want them to pretend it doesn’t exist. He knows the truth that their existence is hard and scary and uncertain—and that’s what all our lives are like without God. But the good news—which shall be to all people—is that the Light comes to join us in whatever darkness we experience, and in so doing, transforms and dispels it, making everything whole with Christ’s love and peace.
It is important for us, too, to be honest with ourselves and with God when we have times in our lives when our hope feels flat and we have little energy and even less optimism. For a whole variety of reasons—some situational, some chronic–we can feel down and discouraged. It’s part of our struggle as human beings. And, as we come close to the end of the second year of this pandemic, we may just be worn out, tired of the stress, tired of adapting, just plain tired.
But here’s the thing: When we can be honest about our inward condition, God comes—with light and loving wisdom—right into the middle of whatever darkness we’re experiencing, comforting and transforming us, from the inside out. In the process, our energy feels refreshed and our hope is renewed. We don’t do it; God does it. George Fox discovered this same thing and he wrote about it in his Journal,
“…my troubles, my sorrows, and my temptations were so great that I thought many times I should have despaired, I was so tempted. But when Christ opened to me how He was tempted by the same devil, and overcame him and bruised his head, and that through Him and His power, light, grace, and Spirit, I should overcome also, I had confidence in Him; so He it was that opened to me when I … had no hope nor faith. Christ, who had enlightened me, gave me His light to believe in; He gave me hope, which He Himself revealed in me, and He gave me His Spirit and grace, which I found sufficient in the deeps and in weakness.”
In George Fox’s inner life, where he was struggling and in pain, Christ helped him see that he, too, had been tempted and had overcome it, and that by Christ’s presence with him, Fox would also overcome his own trial. And this next sentence is key: I had confidence in Him. Fox knew that trapped in his own mind with his own struggles and thoughts, he couldn’t possibly find peace—he had tried it for years, and it hadn’t worked–but with Christ, he knew peace was possible. What caused this change of feeling? Fox had confidence in Him. Christ…, he wrote, gave me his light to believe in; He gave me hope, which He Himself revealed in me.
That is the source of indelible, radiant hope within us—not just at Christmastime but every day. We know the God we’re in relationship with, and we see the beauty of His loving works all around us. We don’t have to look any farther than the eyes of the person next to us to know it’s true. We are here this morning because we have confidence in Him.
I love how Quaker Thomas Kelly writes about hope and the potential of our presence as a balm and a witness to a hurting world. He writes,
“In such a world as ours today, no light glib word of hope dare be spoken…
Only if we look long and deeply into the abyss of despair do we dare to speak of hope…
We dare not tell people to hope in God…
Unless we know what it means to have absolutely no other hope but in God.
But as we know something of such a profound and amazing assurance, clear at the depths of our beings, then we dare to proclaim it boldly in the midst of a world aflame.”
In our New Testament reading today, we heard Mary’s song of hope, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth and gets confirmation of the heavenly identity of her growing child. Elizabeth’s baby—who was conceived several months earlier—leaps at the sound of Mary’s voice. This must have been a tender moment for Mary, a beautiful reminder of God’s presence and an affirmation that all was unfolding according to God’s plan. She says,
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
We can hear clearly in Mary’s song where her hope arises. She is full of joy as she thinks of who God is and all that God has done, stretching back to the ancient days of her ancestors and stretching forward into untold generations that she knows will call her blessed. What fills her heart in this tender moment is the overwhelming greatness of God’s love and the unlimited reach of God’s promise. She has complete confidence in God—indelible, never-fading confidence–and that is the radiant hope at the center of her song and the center of her life. And it will sustain her, through all that life will bring.
Our Quaker tradition holds dear the idea that Christ comes to teach His people Himself, as George Fox experienced so long ago and people have been discovering ever since. That reality and pattern is not reserved for those who are good enough or smart enough or big enough—it is a gift freely given, the Light born, each and every day, into each and every life willing to receive it.
I’d like to end with a lovely poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, called The Mystic’s Christmas. We can hear where the Quaker in this story finds his radiant hope:
"All hail!" the bells of Christmas rang,
"All hail!" the monks at Christmas sang,
The merry monks who kept with cheer
The gladdest day of all their year.
But still apart, unmoved thereat,
A pious elder brother sat
Silent, in his accustomed place,
With God's sweet peace upon his face.
"Why sitt'st thou thus?" his brethren cried,
"It is the blessed Christmas-tide;
The Christmas lights are all aglow,
The sacred lilies bud and blow.
"Above our heads the joy-bells ring,
Without the happy children sing,
And all God's creatures hail the morn
On which the holy Christ was born.
"Rejoice with us; no more rebuke
Our gladness with thy quiet look."
The gray [one] answered, "Keep, I pray,
Even as ye list, the Lord's birthday.
"Let heathen Yule fires flicker red
Where thronged refectory feasts are spread;
With mystery-play and masque and mime
And wait-songs speed the holy time!
"The blindest faith may haply save;
The Lord accepts the things we have;
And reverence, howsoe'er it strays,
May find at last the shining ways.
"They needs must grope who cannot see,
The blade before the ear must be;
As ye are feeling I have felt,
And where ye dwell I too have dwelt.
"But now, beyond the things of sense,
Beyond occasions and events,
I know, through God's exceeding grace,
Release from form and time and space.
"I listen, from no mortal tongue,
To hear the song the angels sung;
And wait within myself to know
The Christmas lilies bud and blow.
"The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!
"Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest seal your Christmas sign,
But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart … Lord Christ born!"
- OT Isaiah 9:2
- NT Luke 1: 39-58
- George Fox’s Journal: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43031/43031-h/43031-h.htm
- Thomas Kelly: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Raymond_Kelly_(Quaker_mystic)
- Whittier, John Greenleaf. A Mystic Christmas. https://poets.org/poem/mystics-christmas