“The light shines forth in the darkness,
And the darkness has not overcome it.”
At Christmas I always feel super nostalgic, and so today I wanted to share some past memories with you. As a child I was afraid of the dark. For everything seemed much more terrifying in the dark: the normal all of a sudden paranormal. Whenever night rolled around, I was afraid there was a monster in my closet that hid behind my clothes ready to devour me should I let it know I was sleeping. I was afraid that whenever I felt a chill in the air, a ghost was wandering on by (like that M. Night Shyamalan film I watched too young: “The Sixth Sense”). I was afraid that a thief would break into my house and enter the bedroom I shared with my sister. And that’s why I connivingly chose the bed furthest from the door. Because in loving older sister fashion, I thought the thief would get to her first so I could sneak out the window next to my bed. I was afraid of the dark, because of the strange shadows cast in the corners of the room; because of how loudly the old floorboards creaked in the house when all was silent; because of the inability to see clearly the familiar yet now foreign shapes surrounding me.
Now I would guess that many of us as children, at one point in time, experienced this fear of the dark. Yet I also would venture to say that this very same fear continues into our adulthood. Maybe not the fear of physical darkness; maybe not the fear of the actual oncoming of night, but we as a culture are afraid of the dark. We use darkness all the time as a metaphor for those moments in our lives that we would rather avoid.
Perhaps your darkness is the loss of a loved one this holiday season—whether it be through death or divorce or a move across country–attempting to avoid the grief by keeping so busy with shopping, baking, and wrapping the gifts, the sorrow can’t catch up with you. Perhaps your darkness is sheer outrage at the state of our country, trying as you might to reconcile how we have ended up in this situation. And jokingly, Or maybe not so jokingly, thinking fleeing the country is better than remaining. Or perhaps your darkness is depression: hiding from your coworkers that you didn’t really laugh at that joke, that you didn’t have a relaxing vacation, and that you are most certainly not having a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
As a culture we do not think highly of these shadowed moments in our lives. So more often than not, especially during the holiday season, on this holiest of holy days, we try to deny that they exist. And we often cite our Scripture as supporting our view of the darkness. In the Old Testament darkness is associated with Sheol, the underworld, with death. During the ten plagues locusts darken the sky and blot out the sunlight. And during the night nomadic people must be on their guard for bandits or sexual predators or murderers. We do find these references in Scripture, yet the Word of God, as well as Christmas Day itself, is a bit more nuanced than that. The darkness can be a scary space but it can also be a liminal space, a spiritual space, a space where the divine enters in and we meet God face to face.
What is the good news in darkness? What if the darkness we fear wasn’t really that dark at all? For example, in our sacred scriptures one evening in the wilderness, Jacob lays down his head on a stone and wakes in the night to see angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. Generations later while the Israelite slaves are running for their lives from the Egyptians, during the darkest of nights, God separates the Red Sea and guides these children across and away from danger. In our nativity story from our Gospels narratives, angels and shepherds come to Bethlehem on that silent night to see that baby Jesus lying in the manger. Then three magi only know their path by the illumination of a star. They can only see the way and move to that lowly stable under the cover of night as the rest of the world is sleeping. The darkness is not always a dangerous place because it can also be a mysterious and mystical place where God is revealed to God’s people. “The light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness has not overcome it.”
My friends, there will be darkness in our lives. There will be those moments in time that we would rather avoid, those situations that we would rather pretend like they just don’t exist. Yet God has not abandoned us in the darkness. For our Gospel reading for today does not say the darkness did not overcome it, or the light at only one point in time shone out of the darkness. But this translation instead states that the darkness still has not overcome the light and that the darkness never will.
God incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh, the light of the world,
Jesus came in the midst of darkness and remains with us in the midst of darkness. For the light of God in Jesus Christ can actually work within this darkness.
As Psalm 139 reminds us: for the Divine One, “The night and the day are both alike.” And at the very beginning of it all, in Genesis chapter one, God creates the night as God separates the light from the dark. And all of it is good. Although the darkness may feel foreign to us at times, it is not foreign to God. God knows it well, for God has walked with us on this very earth in the form of Jesus, the babe lying in the manger, who we celebrate today. The Divine knows our pain and our suffering. God sees clearly in the dark the plight of the poor and the flight of the refugee. God hears clearly in the dark the cry of the black mother mourning her dead son and the wailing of the women of Aleppo. And God knows our own darkness. God knows our fear our anger, and our sorrow—those emotions we as a society have denounced as negative. Yet no matter how often we try to push them down, they continue to bubble up to the surface. For they have something to tell us. We do not have to be afraid of the dark, for Christ will always be there with us. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” And well, you know the rest.
Sometimes in the dark, that is actually when we see the light of Christ most clearly and brightly, for there are no other lights vying for our attention. That is actually where we finally see God face to face, for every other face is blurred in the shadows, foreign and unknown to us. That is actually where we meet our Maker and begin the hard inner work of the life of faith that is much easier to deny in the light. Where is your darkness this Christmas or perhaps Christmas seasons of old? Where is God moving your soul through sorrow, anger or fear? What are the difficult questions God is asking you of yourself and of the world that you would rather avoid? What work is the light of God doing in you and through you in the darkness?
The light shines forth in the darkness this day and always. And the darkness will never overcome it. Instead Christ, the one true light, will be with us in the midst of the darkness: guiding us, illuminating us, and yes, challenging us, but never ever abandoning us. So no matter how much it may grip you, do not fear, the Lord is with us. In both the brightest of day and the darkest of nights, Emmanuel, God is with us.
So let us take a moment, no matter what we are feeling, no matter what fears arise. Let us take a moment to celebrate that mystery of God with us today: that bouncy baby boy cooing and perhaps screaming in the manger. Mother and father are exhausted, and yes, perhaps a bit fearful at what is to come. But they are also happier than they could have ever imagined. Joy and fear in this moment coexist. Let us celebrate that God chose to walk with us and never leave us. Let us celebrate the birth of the God incarnate, Jesus Christ, that will forever be the light of our lives no matter how dark it gets.