Perhaps the most compelling Christmas story of this past year was one that all of us listened to together last July. And by all together I mean millions of people from every part of the world. It was the story of Tham Luang, and if you don’t remember that tale by name, I’m sure you will recall how it went.
It was the drama of 12 young boys and their coach from a soccer team in a remote part of Thailand who became stranded deep inside a cave when the water rushed in and cut off their means of escape.
For more than two weeks they were trapped in pitch darkness, and for a time not even knowing whether anybody outside knew they were there and were in grave peril, or whether anybody was looking for them. And even if they were, was their rescue even possible amid the dangerous conditions and with time running out and with threat of still more rain yet to come? It must have seemed impossible, and terrifying.
Of course what they didn’t know was that every major news media outlet in the world knew exactly where they were, and that an international team of divers was doing everything in their power to save them.
And we all remember the happy ending to this Christmas story—all of them were brought out to safety and bright daylight by a seemingly miraculous execution of skill and compassion. Well, it was almost a completely happy ending. One diver from Thailand named Saman Gunan perished while trying to exit the cave one last time. He’d been willing to put his own life at risk for the sake of those 13 helpless ones, and in the end that was his sacrifice.
So what makes this story a parable of Christmas? It’s because this too is a story of
a miracle of a rescue from deep darkness to bright light, from fear to safety, from isolation to communion, from desperation to hope fulfilled.
Hear the Prophet Isaiah’s Christmas proclamation:
The people who once were in darkness have seen bright light, and for those who have been dwelling in gloom and despair, light has shone.
Hear the report of Christmas Eve from the Gospel of Luke:
The shepherds in the field at night saw the glory of the angels and brilliance of God shining all around them.
Hear another report from the Gospel of Matthew:
The Magi scoured the sky, the deep darkness, and they spotted a star, a light, which they followed all the way to the manger.
Hear the Gospel of John:
This divine savior, this heavenly Word from God, is the light of the human race, the light shining in the deep darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. This light is given to everyone, and it has finally arrived in this world.
And there is another reason why the tale of Tham Laung is a Christmas story, and his name is Saman Gunan, a rescuer who realized the peril of other people who couldn’t save themselves or be freed from the darkness, and so he did, together with all those other selfless souls who were able to make it out alive.
The wise priest and professor who taught me how to preach a long time ago at the seminary used to tell his students that a relatively adequate homily in church should always be able to provide people in the end with a satisfactory answer to the simple question, “Who cares?” or “So what?” On this Christmas Eve/Day,
taking that advice seriously, I’d like to repeat the conclusion of an editor at CNN who had this to say about the story of Tham Luang:
“Let’s hope this successful international effort to rescue a dozen boys and their coach in a remote cave in Thailand lifts us all, bringing us back into the light where we can stand together and be grateful for those who teach us to care this deeply.”
Here we welcome the arrival of our Master Teacher, Jesus Christ.