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Sermon for Christmas Day (Selection 1) 2021: Darkness and Fear (The Rev. Columba Salamony)

Updated: Dec 29, 2021

The people walking in darkness

are seeing a brilliant light—

upon those who dwell in a land of deep shadows

light is shining! (Is. 9:3, IB) 1

In the name of the one God: Our Mother, our Brother, and our Friend.


It’s a strange and most mystifying thing. Darkness – the partial or total

absence of light. Or, a different definition, darkness – wickedness or evil.

Darkness is that from which no light is found; where there is no hope, no joy,

no peace. Yet, darkness is sometimes beautiful, in its terror and mystery.

Though I have not been perfectly acquainted with complete darkness—not in

a physical way—I’ve been to a variety of places around the world and

experienced something very close to darkness:

On the west coast of Scotland, on the tiny Isle of Iona, I slept in a cabin barely

large enough for two single beds and my backpack, perched atop a high

mound that looked out over the North Atlantic Ocean. In the paddock below,

all I could see was two rather dim lights, and stretching out over the sea was a

blanket of stars with the tiniest fingernail’s slip of the moon hanging above the

swirling icy water.

Or in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where our nearest gas station was

across the border, in Canada; our nearest stop sign was 35 minutes away;

and the nearest McDonald’s easily took an entire afternoon to get to... Above

the beautiful conifer trees hung a sky streaked with slender ribbons of clouds,

which softly dimmed that same heavy quilt of stars.

I’m sure we could think of so many other dark places—the north rim of the

Grand Canyon twenty minutes before sunrise. At the Parting of the Waters, at

Two Ocean Pass, where the rivers change directions across the Great Divide,

a six-day horseback journey from the nearest ranch. On a boat, out in the

Bering Sea, with its lights dimmed so you can watch the aurorae borealis

dance across the horizon...

We are a people who do not know real darkness. I will risk sounding like a

Luddite and name it: We are cursed by electricity! We have to go miles and

miles into the wilderness, into John the Baptist’s territory, to avoid light

pollution from even the dimmest street lamps in the smallest villages in the

most compact of valleys, to find darkness… and even then, there is the light of

the moon! I imagine I’m the wrong dimensions to know anything remotely

interesting about exploring caves, but the only place I can think of where we

might find true, primitive darkness is a deep, dank cavern, pitch-black from

having never been greeted by the sun’s rays.

Our ancestors, however, with their oil-burning lamps and dry-wood fires did

not have to expend much effort to imagine or even experience the true

darkness of night. For many early civilizations, the dark was a threat against

their existence. In the darkness was where crime happened; where evil

prevailed; where things went wrong; where uncertainty, threat, and sadness

haunted even the warmest of dreams.

These shepherds in our gospel story were among the poorest, most outcast

members of Judean society under Roman occupation, and they often made

their living in the darkness. They slept in the fields with their sheep and goats,

being close at hand in case any predators wanted mutton for a festive dinner.

They would be very used to staring out across the Palestinian countryside,

their half-squinted eyes adjusting to the severe darkness, watching for rustling

of grass or the unfamiliar shadows of those things that go “bump” in the

night... The darkness was their home, more than any village nearby, and they

intuitively knew how to survive it.

And yet… In the middle of the night, when the sky was its darkest, still another

hour or two before the sun peeks its lazy head over the distant horizon: in an

instant—the blink of an eye—beams of dazzling light illume the soft, rolling

hills, making every blade of grass gleam with dew. From the center of this

great light, they can start to decipher a figure, and they were filled with fear. It

wasn’t an ordinary fear—not of wolves or of Rome, but of something

completely Other.

The figure appears more clearly and they see this angelic beast, who tells the

shepherds on that first Christmas morning: “Do not be afraid… I come to

proclaim good news to you—news of a great joy to be shared by the whole

people…” (Lk. 9:10, IB paraphrased).

OK… I promised myself this wouldn’t be another sermon about how scary

biblical descriptions of angels could actually be to these people since their

minds weren’t warped by Jim Henson, cable television, or any piece of

science fiction about aliens and monsters… That’s 100% not why we’re

here… you’ll have to look for images of “scary biblical angels” on

Google—after the sermon, of course. Anyway…

The terrifying beast with a voice like thunder: “Do. Not. Be. Afraid!”

I wonder if that really worked!?

I am uncertain if the shepherds would have any real knowledge of this tell-tale

introduction of a heavenly being found throughout the Hebrew scriptures. I’m

sure if they were devout studiers of scripture, they’d recognize it as a greeting

from God’s messengers… Because it happens a lot! The Lord comes to

Abram in a vision, saying “Do not be afraid, Abram” (Gen 15:1). The angel of

God calls to Hagar from heaven, “What’s wrong, Hagar? Do not be afraid!”

(Gen. 21:17). (I think the angel went off-script that time.) “Do not be afraid, you

worm Jacob, little Israel” (Is.41:14). “Do not be afraid, land of Judah! Rejoice

and sing,” (Joel 2:21).

It is throughout our Advent and Christmas readings, as well (which the

shepherds would, for many reasons, have no clue about): “Zechariah, do not

be afraid; your prayer has been heard.” (Lk 1:13) “Do not be afraid, Mary, you

have found favor with God.” (Lk 1:30).

Would you not be fearful if a mysterious figure showed up at your bedside and

spoke bizarre things to you? Wouldn’t you reach for the baseball bat hidden

under your bed? Or have Alexa call 911? Or would you be faithful, listen, and

say yes? I don’t imagine it’s an easy thing to do.

This fear is a curious thing to think about for a Christmas morning sermon.

Anyone who’s exchanged an email with Rev Deb might recognize the quote at

the close of her email signature: The opposite of faith is not doubt; the

opposite of faith is fear.

Fear is a natural thing when you live in a world of literal or figurative darkness.

These messengers to the shepherds, to our forebears, to us, are saying, “Do

not be afraid, because God is with you.” The angel continues saying to the

shepherds, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the

Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in

bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

These shepherds were so stirred by their celestial visitor that they rose up, left

their flocks, and went into the town straightaway to search out the Messiah.

They found Mary and the newborn child and, with rejoicing, spread the news

to all those around Bethlehem what they had seen that night.

They did not let their fear overcome them. They were not plagued by their

anxieties or haunted by visions of angelic beasts creeping around in the

shadows… Their fear turned into hope, undergirded by their faith, by their

belief that their darkness could turn to light. Like the darkness, fear is defeated

by the light. MLK famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only

light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” 2 Faith,

hope, and love will always be the light to drive the darkness back into the


And yet: We must always remember that Jesus was born into a world of

darkness as an outcast: a brown-skinned child from the backend of beyond,

born under Roman occupation; brought forth into life by an adolescent, unwed

mother, miles away from her family and kindred; suckled for the first time in a

cave, wrapped in leftover fabric, laid to rest among the warm hay; surrounded

by lowing cows and covered with the thick, primal scent of a barnyard.

The first Christmas was nowhere near perfection. It was dark. It was

fearsome. And yet, the great light shone forth and brought to us the Child that

we were long-expecting.

1 Priests for Equality. The Inclusive Bible (p. 651). Sheed & Ward. Kindle


2 King, Jr, Martin Luther. Strength to Love. Harper & Row, 1963, p. 37.

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