Sermon for the Liturgy of the Longest Night, December 21, 2018 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

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A little over 20 years ago, I was at what was, to that point at least, the lowest point in my life. My marriage was foundering, I couldn’t seem to get a grasp on what my future might be, and I found myself in the midst of a profound and deep depression. I was serving in a busy church as an organist and choirmaster, and the pressures of the approaching Christmas season only added to my emotional turmoil. I simply felt that I did not have the energy to do everything I needed to do.       

Feeling terribly alone and isolated, even when surrounded by the sounds and sights of the season, I received in my mail one day my monthly copy of Episcopal Life, a newsprint magazine that was once the communication arm of the national Episcopal Church. I hastily opened it up to the middle page where the Spirituality Matters column was found, thinking that perhaps my favorite writer (whose name I can’t even remember) might have some comfort or guidance for me in my despair. 

To my dismay, I found instead a column by Bishop Steven Charleston, the first Native American bishop in the Episcopal Church who became one of the regular contributors to the spirituality column for the paper, but at that time, he was not what I was looking for and I was annoyed and disappointed. Even so, desperate, I began to read what he had to say. It would not be overstating to say that what he wrote in that particular issue had a life-changing effect on me. No, I was not miraculously healed of my depression. My life was not magically knit back together, but I did read words that spoke to my condition, feeling very much on the outside of the joy and warmth of the holidays.

Every year since then, I have pulled out that same column to re-read. I have shared it almost annually with someone, anyone, I thought might benefit. I have posted it on Facebook. I have mailed it via snail mail. And tonight, I want to share it with you.  Perhaps you are not hearing the singing of the angels this year. You are not alone.

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Bishop Charleston wrote:

In the ancient wisdom of many of the tribes it was understood that life emerged from within the womb of the Earth. Therefore, the most sacred places were those beneath the surface. They were kivas: the deep and dark circles underground where life was born and hope first nurtured and where God emerged into the world of human beings.          

I spent last Christmas in a kiva. At the time, of course, I didn’t realize it. Only now, looking back over my shoulder, can I see the path that brought me there and then led me up again into the light.

Like so many others for whom a holiday becomes a lament, I found myself out of sync with time, trapped between the season of joy and the reality of sorrow. Instead of feeling the warmth and happiness of the Christmas spirit, I was sleepwalking in the hypnosis of a private pain that kept me isolated from shopping malls and office parties. Like so many people do when they are hurting, I went underground.

How odd it may seem now to begin a Christmas meditation with such an admission. To confess to sadness and isolation at this time of year seems so contrary to the television Christmas special atmosphere our modern society generates for us each year.

But at the risk of being thought a Scrooge, I hope that my honesty may offer something more valuable, something deeper, especially to those who watch this season from the sidelines of joy. I hope this small meditation in a church newspaper may go beneath the surface of a commercial Christmas and touch a heart in need of love.

Listen, I am speaking to you. To any of you who are planning to spend this holiday underground. I want to share a word with you that comes not only from my Christian faith and my tribal tradition, but from my heart as a man who has spent time in the kiva alone, just as you have. Perhaps just as you are now. Listen. I have some Good News for you:   

The isolation can become stillness. The dark can become comfort. The silence can become thought. The memories can become pathways. The pain can become passion. The loss can become hope. The denial can become truth. The weakness, strength. The empty places, open places waiting to be filled. The silent room a sacred place, a personal place, with just enough space for you and God to begin life again.

How odd this may seem or sound to the scores of people enjoying Christmas up above, on the surface, where things seem comfortingly self-apparent. Perhaps to them, these words will be only a cipher.

But for all of the rest of you who know what it means to enter a holiday alone or afraid, for all those truly sitting alone as they read this, you will know exactly, instinctively what I mean. This is my gift to you for Christmas. This is the gift of our church for you. It is the gift of a true Christmas, one that does not ask you to come up to find it, but that comes down to find you. And here is what it has to offer.

The truth of any sorrow is that it makes us new. We have no choice but to start again. To be born again. And because we are so new, so young and so fragile, we cannot do that alone. Therefore, God, through mercy and love, sends a miracle to enter the darkness with us, to bring us the healing and the peace we need to replace the loss and the fear.

Where you are right now is a manger. It may be poor in the eyes of the world, humble to those seeing only on the surface of things, but it is holy ground. It is the place God has chosen. It is a starting place. A sacred place. Not on the surface. But deep down inside. Down to the heart. Down to the womb. Down to the soul. Right there, with you, underground, in the kiva, so safe, so warm, so full of light.

Dear Brother or Sister, wherever you may be, receive this simple Christmas greeting from our church as it speaks just to you with the ancient accent of Native America: May God be with you in the kivatonight. May God’s love surround you and make you new. May the true spirit of the birth of Christ emerge ever so gently in your heart. And may the light of that constant care guide you safely to return to those who need you, to all of us who have spent our time beneath the surface in search of the joy that is Christmas.[1]

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And so my friends, I say to you – we, the Church, say to you – “you are not alone.” We are here. This community is here. God is here, with us. Emmanuel.


[1]Several years ago, I wrote to Bishop Charleston to thank him for this essay of his and to ask permission to share it. It said that I could share it freely, and so I do.

ASEPSermon for the Liturgy of the Longest Night, December 21, 2018 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas