Last week, just after dark, I walked up Greenwich Avenue from the train station and got my first glimpse of the store windows this year.
I always enjoy that, especially in the evening.
The twinkle-lit trees are illuminated, and the restaurants are in full swing, and the commuters are trudging uphill with their briefcases and backpacks toward Maher Avenue or Mason Street.
As you know, the stores along the Avenue put some attention into their windows, and if you look closely enough, it’s almost as if a story unfolds—or as if you’re looking in on scenes from a world.
In one window, the mannequin with the cravat and the double-breasted blazer seems frozen in the middle of a joke with the mannequin in the red boiled wool jacket.
Maybe their next stop is the fancy dinner taking place two windows up, at Betteridge, where the table is set with an enormous Victorian silver gravy boat, shaped like Santa’s sleigh.
Or perhaps they are going down the Avenue, to the Classic Car shop to pick up their lovingly restored Triumph motorcar with the enormous red bow on it.
Christmas on the Avenue is elegant in a way that my own Christmas is not.
But it’s still fun to look, even if I can’t really imagine ever actually needing the particular accoutrements they have on offer.
I mean, have you ever noticed that there are always a lot of enormous leather steamer trunks in the windows along the Avenue this time of year?
This is not exactly about needing.
Admittedly, those windows are better at depicting the broadly aspirational than the strictly necessary.
They whisper to us about imaginary worlds that are just the merest swipe of a card away.
And so, indeed, there is something of us in those windows….
There is something we actually do need, in a different sort of way.
Because there’s something in them of our hunger for beauty and sophistication, for friendship or festivity, and maybe for a life without rushing: a life with time for actual conversation rather than texted reminders or “last chance” emails.
I always think we feel the rumble of that hunger more at Christmas.
There’s no denying that Christmas can be a particular focus for that longing.
If fact, if you look at those windows closely, maybe they have less to say about what elegance looks like than about what a life in balance looks like—a life that’s more connected with people and places and to the joy of living.
At Christmas, the windows seem to speak to that dream of balance.
Of course, the Christmas story as Luke’s gospel tells it is far from a celebration of lives in balance.
If there is one thing that was true for all the characters assembled around the manger, it is that after stopping in Bethlehem, their lives would never be the same.
Whatever balance they had come to know and rely on would turn out to be gone for good.
God’s supreme act of “disruptive innovation” would change everything.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah had written, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (9:2).
I’ve always wondered if they thought of that—I wonder if all those various travelers on the roads to Bethlehem that night were thinking about darkness and light.
Think of all the old paintings of Joseph leading the donkey bearing Mary along the starlit road from Nazareth.
The scene always looks so quiet. They both look so lost in thought.
What were they thinking?
Everything and nothing, I suppose.
But I like to think that as the miles wore on, they were remembering the voice of Isaiah….deep darkness…great light…
Maybe the shepherds were thinking of Isaiah too, as they hunkered down on the edge of town. Shepherds were largely forgotten people, people mostly just hoping to pass through without causing attention.
They knew about deep darkness. They were living it.
So were the magi, wearing the exotic silks of royal courts, coming from Jerusalem on their camels, following the great star they had seen so far away, and so many weeks before.
They knew about darkness. They saw the look on Herod’s face when they told him about the star. They knew it wasn’t just a star, somehow.
Make no mistake: the darkness Isaiah was talking about went a lot deeper than the inky mantle of night.
The King James Version is exceedingly direct on this point, translating Isaiah’s words as: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”
Isaiah was talking about a world that needed saving—a world weighed down by the shadow of death itself.
So what Isaiah seeks to name, and what the Christmas story seeks to name, is first of all, the fact of that darkness—the darkness that is in the world, and the darkness that we find in ourselves….
We know it well.
It’s a darkness we encounter in the news, and in our homes and offices.
It’s the darkness we encounter in the comments section of any Internet story, no matter how seemingly uncontroversial.
It’s the darkness of a world where so many are fighting for their lives in so many different ways.
So much in our world is so ugly. The shadow of death is not far from us. We know it.
But that’s not all that Isaiah has to say.
He talks about darkness, but that’s not where Isaiah leaves things.
When Isaiah talks about light, about the great light, he’s trying to imagine what it will be like when the God who had seemed silent for so long will once again make His presence known.
The Gospel of Luke picks up on that.
For Luke, the promise of the story is that the coming of Jesus, the coming of the light, can rekindle the light within us.
Luke promises that, in Jesus, the light will be bright enough for us to see by, once again.
In fact, he promises that it will be bright enough for others to see, and that in time, they will come to follow it, too.
Rekindling the light is slow work, even for the best of us.
That’s why we need to hold on to this story and to keep telling it. That’s why we need to pass it on to our children.
Christmas reminds us that the world needs our help, and that we need God’s help.
Yes, it is hard to wait—we’ve already been waiting so long.
But remember: the promise of the story is that, in fact, the waiting is over.
The story promises us—reminds us—reassures us that the work of redemption has already begun.
The light is already shining in the darkness, urging us forward.
Tonight we affirm again that in Jesus of Nazareth, the babe in the manger, God sent his only son to be with us and to share our life, so that in time, all people might come to share in God’s life.
It has already begun.
That’s what the story promises.
That said, what it does not promise is balance.
So many people seem to love Christmas because it calls us to be a little kinder, a little more generous, a little more patient.
There’s that song that goes, “We need a little Christmas, just this very minute….”
So many love Christmas because it calls us to put things in perspective. In balance.
But when push comes to shove, a lot of people don’t actually want a lot of Christmas. They only want a little. And they don’t want it in the fullness of God’s time. They want it now. Just this very minute. On their terms. In ways that fit in neatly to the lives they’re busy living.
They don’t want surgery: they just want to get a little work done.
And yet, that’s not what the story promises at all.
The story says that to live in the light of this story is to see our lives not just tweaked, but transformed.
To live in the light of this story is to see God’s claim on the world that He has made, and it is to see the world gradually waking up to that claim.
The story is about following the call to serve the love and purposes of God, wherever they may lead.
There’s nothing little about it, except for the little baby in the manger—that baby who is already growing into the mature person he will become.
Its enormous promise is that in him, even you and I might grow into maturity, too.
But only if we undertake the journey. Only if we are willing to walk the light of that one star.
What is it we’re longing for this Christmas, you and I?
Lives somehow different than they are? Relationships, prospects, comforts, diversions somehow different than they are? A world somehow different than it is?
That’s not what’s on offer down Greenwich Avenue.
The real Christmas we seek is not on display in a store window.
Tonight we remember that the window that matters most of all is the window into God’s heart.
That’s what Christmas is. It’s a window into God’s heart.
And it shows us a world where the darkness is banished, and the way forward is clear, and whoever we might be and by whatever road it is we travel, there is a place for each of us around that manger. There is a place for you.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.”
For it is by that light, that finally we come to see.
Merry Christmas. God bless us, every one.