On Sunday, December 21, the Falls City Area Ministerial Association hosted “A Service of Lament for the Holy Season”, sometimes called a “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” service. Pastor Andrew preached the homily at the service; the text of his reflection is posted below.
Scripture for the Longest Night:
Old Testament Reading – Psalm 142
New Testament Reading – 2 Corinthians 4:6-10
Gospel Reading: John 1:1-5
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
If you look back at the call to worship that began this evening’s service, you’ll see that the words of that lament are excerpted from Psalm 88, one of the so-called psalms of lament. With your indulgence, I’d like to read that psalm in its entirety, because on this longest night it expresses a depth of sorrow that is really unparalleled by any other passage of Scripture:
Lord, God of my salvation,
by day I cry out,
even at night, before you—
let my prayer reach you!
Turn your ear to my outcry
because my whole being is filled with distress;
my life is at the very brink of hell.
I am considered as one of those plummeting into the pit.
I am like those who are beyond help,
drifting among the dead,
lying in the grave, like dead bodies—
those you don’t remember anymore,
those who are cut off from your power.
You placed me down in the deepest pit,
in places dark and deep.
Your anger smothers me;
you subdue me with it, wave after wave.
You’ve made my friends distant.
You’ve made me disgusting to them.
I can’t escape. I’m trapped!
My eyes are tired of looking at my suffering.
I’ve been calling out to you every day, Lord—
I’ve had my hands outstretched to you!
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do ghosts rise up and give you thanks?
Is your faithful love proclaimed in the grave,
your faithfulness in the underworld?
Are your wonders known in the land of darkness,
your righteousness in the land of oblivion?
But I cry out to you, Lord!
My prayer meets you first thing in the morning!
Why do you reject my very being, Lord?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Since I was young I’ve been afflicted, I’ve been dying.
I’ve endured your terrors. I’m lifeless.
Your fiery anger has overwhelmed me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
They surround me all day long like water;
they engulf me completely.
You’ve made my loved ones and companions distant.
My only friend is darkness.
(Psalm 88, Common English Bible)
Does any of that sound familiar to you? The questioning? The longing? The feelings of being distressed, subdued, drowned, afflicted, engulfed, or distant from others? Some of it does to me. Perhaps some of these feelings resonate with you this evening. It’s sort of incredible to read about emotion this raw in Scripture, isn’t it? So many of our friends and neighbors get nervous when they start hearing this kind of talk. By and large, they’re good Christian folk who want us to make the turn from grief to hope because they’re afraid that faith can’t stand in the face of this sort of despair. They’re unable to fathom sorrow so deep that it can’t abide the thought of praise, yet here it is in our holy book. In Psalm 88 there is no acknowledgment of God’s goodness, there are no feeble attempts to paper over the pain. There is only this stark truth: sometimes we truly feel that darkness is our only companion.
On this longest night, perhaps it is all that you can do to sit with your grief and name the pain that has defied your attempts to comprehend it. Psalm 88 ends where it does because sometimes we just can’t make that turn quite yet. If that’s the case, then I pray that you find some small measure of comfort in the fact that you are not alone in dwelling with that grief, that you are gathered with others who understand what it means to be in pain, even though it can never be exactly like yours.
At the same time, I pray that you hear anew this word from John’s Gospel. You don’t have to understand it. You don’t need to acknowledge its truth. You’re not obligated to lay your grief aside because of it. Just listen to it again:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:5, CEB)
You might feel like you’re trapped in the shadows, but the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
You might wonder if you have any friends besides the darkness, but the light shines into that darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
You might wonder if the night will ever end, but the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
The light may not be strong. You may not even be able to see it at the moment. But the light is there, this light that sometimes flickers and falters but is never mastered by the murk and muck and mire of this world. The light is Christ, the one who came in weakness and vulnerability to drink the overflowing cup of human sorrow and pain and loss. That light is Christ, who himself suffered death and from the cross wailed that he, too, felt that he had been abandoned by God. That light is Christ, who rose again to break the grip of sin and death and hell and who bore our humanity in all of its brokenness and loss to the heart of God.
Dear friends, on this longest night, may these words take root in your own hearts: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. May the Spirit of God rekindle your hope, renew your faith, and strengthen you in love, and may the peace of God which surpasses our understanding guard your hearts and minds as you continue your journey toward healing and wholeness. Amen.