The middle of the night
Thumbnail art: “In the Middle of the Night” by Nikko, licensed for use with attribution https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ Use of art does not imply endorsement of page content by artist.
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
Dec 24, 2018—Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:2-7; “The Coming of Light” by Mark Strand; Luke 2:1-20
“Even this late, it happens. The coming of light. The coming of love.”
Even this late … in the middle of the night, it bursts in, waking us from slumber. Or it creeps in, past our defenses, as we lie awake late at night. Late at night, as Nadia Bolz-Weber says, when your ego has finally clocked out for the day, and you are at last undefended. That same state, it must be admitted, that leaves you open to those long dark nights of the soul, when you find yourself facing everything that you’ve been shielding yourself from: all your worries and fears, all your shortcomings and failings, all of it *right there,* and nothing left of you to ward it off.
Even this late, it happens. Especially this late, it happens. When we are defenseless. When all our elaborate protections and constructions shut down for the night. When we are suddenly, deeply aware of our need for salvation, our need for rebirth, our desire for a new world, new courage, a new way forward.
Not for nothing do we celebrate the birth of Christ in the middle of the night. God slips into the world when our defenses are down. When we are vulnerable, and open, and imaginative.
Even now, it happens. But this is a different kind of long night of the soul. This time it won’t be the solitary descent into anxiety that we are used to. This time it will be strength and hope and peace walking itself into the very midst of our fears and our failings, to lift us up. This time it will be God himself landing in the midst of a heart-broken world to offer it his heart and let it dream his dreams.
In the middle of the night… It doesn’t need to be the literal middle of the night, of course. And the broken world doesn’t need to be a dirty, crowded inn in an occupied country, two thousand years ago. Doesn’t need to be two scared parents and a baby, who end up fleeing to another country to escape death. The night comes to all of us, and history, as it turns out, repeats itself throughout time and across the world.
It is always the middle of the night somewhere. And God needs to walk herself into this broken-hearted world over and over. Hoping that the transplant will work this time. Hoping that our admittedly unfit human forms can somehow accept the heart of God and let it beat within us, at least for a little while.
God’s heart, helping us to bear our own heartbreak. God’s heart, expanding our breaking heart so it can respond to the heartbreak of the world. God’s heart, beating alongside our own, prompting us to seek out the lost and the scared, to protect the vulnerable, to give to those who have nothing.
God has set aside his own power, his own invulnerability, so that he might get past all our self-protection to reach our vulnerability. He has offered this great and wondrous gift to us: all we truly need and yet not exactly what we asked for. Which is perhaps why we pile so many other gifts on top of it every year. Why God keeps reminding us of this gift; why we must ask for and try to receive this gift, year after year. Because we have a limited capacity to hold a heart as big and as broken as God’s. And because the ability to live and love and heal the world with our broken heart isn’t exactly what we had in mind, either for our savior or ourselves. So we let our ego clock back in, choosing to keep on with just our own, slightly dodgy heart. It’s familiar, and it has a million ways to protect us from the pain and responsibility of the world’s needs (not to mention our own failings).
The beautiful thing, though, the miraculous thing, is that sometimes it’s those very limitations that create a new opportunity to receive the gift. I recently heard just such a story … of a man (a raging alcoholic) whose wife left him, but she couldn’t take their two St. Bernards with her. And he struggled to take care of them, and he did the very best he could, and those dogs were the greatest source of comfort and joy in his whole messed up life. But one day, after the dogs had busted out of the house one more time to steal food from the neighbor’s garbage, he just had to admit that he was not in any shape to give them what they needed. Heartbroken, he found a family to take them and he gave them up. He couldn’t imagine how empty his life would be without them, but he knew they needed more than he could give. And that act of selflessness was what began his journey back to health.
It was broad daylight when the family loaded the dogs into their pickup, but it was also the middle of the night, and God was sneaking in. God’s heart was taking up residence within his chest. God was being born in the manger, the manger built from one man admitting his limitations, the manger patched together from his rickety and breathtaking sacrificial love.
The birth of Christ doesn’t require us to become good and perfect enough to make a place for him. God surrendered power and ego to enter this world, taking on vulnerability in order to invite us to do the same. In the middle of the night. When we just might be open enough and imaginative enough to receive the gift.
The Christ Child is born, once again. The heart of God is trying to sneak past our defenses, once again. To beat in our chest. To help our heart keep beating, for ourselves and for the entire waiting world. Christ is born. Let us receive him with courage and with joy. Merry Christmas. Amen.
 Mark Strand, “The Coming of Light”
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, from the chapter “Absolution for Assholes” in Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, Convergent Books, 2015.
 Pauls Toutonghi, “Learning humanity from Dogs,” Modern Love column in New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/fashion/modern-love-learning-humanity-from-dogs.html