The Christmas season is a celebration of light. We light our trees, our banisters, our mantels. We string our doors and eves to counter against the sun’s early retreat. We shine candles against our darkened church sanctuaries. Why?
For Christians, this is a celebration of the advent of the light of the world. We sing with Richard Crashaw:
Gloomy night embraced the place
Where the noble infant lay:
The babe look’d up, and show’d His face;
In spite of darkness it was day.
And with Milton we proclaim that:
[The sun’s] “inferior flame
The new-enlighten’d world no more should need:
He saw a greater Sun appear
Than his bright throne or burning axle-tree could bear.
This is why early Christians began to celebrate the birth of Christ in December, around the darkest night of the year, the winter solstice. In the very midst of the dark, the cold, and the gloom, God had again spoken: “Let there be light.”
Light in the Darkness
Yet here, in the midst of our rightly joyous celebrations, it is good to pause and consider carefully what the apostle John says concerning the shining light of this greater Sun. If we were asked to reproduce John 1:5 from memory, I wonder if we would recall it going something like this: “And the light shone in the darkness and conquered it.” But that is not the way John puts it.
“The light shines in the darkness,” he says. Such a phrasing indicates not a moment in history, when the light shone forth, but the entire history of that light shining. This is the light of God’s unconquered Son, from “the beginning,” when God began his conquest of darkness in Genesis 1:2, up until the dawning of this originate Light in a new way, in the flesh of Christ the Savior. In the beginning, the darkness was not able to prevail that originate Light. Even in the dark history that followed to the coming of our Lord, that Light remained untrammeled.
But notice the next phrase, “and darkness did not conquer it.” The light of the indomitable Son shines, yes. But that does not mean the darkness has vanished. Even at the coming of this Light in a new way, shadows remain. John, remember, is indicating a history. Birth is the beginning not the end; the dawn is commencement, not completion.
Indeed, as Milton continues:
And Heav’n as at some festivall,
Will open wide the Gates of her high Palace Hall.
But wisest Fate sayes no,
This must not yet be so,
The Babe lies yet in smiling infancy,
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss;
So both himself and us to glorifie.
For the babe in the manger there was yet evil to subdue. For the Dayspring there was yet gloomy clouds of night to disperse.
Children of Light Amidst Gloomy Night
That history continues to our day. We are caught up in it. We humans still “sit in the darkness of suffering,” as the prophet Micah put it (Micah 7:8). We still grope about in the darkness of ignorance (Ephesians 5:8). We still witness in the personal, communal, and political spheres the devastating workings of the principalities and powers and rulers of the world of this darkness (Ephesians 6:12). We still linger in the shadow of death (Luke 1:79).
For Christians, the difference is not that we now live in utter light, but that we, who still sit in darkness, have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2). In the midst of darkness and suffering, the prophet Micah reminds, “the Lord shall be my light” (Micah 7:8). And because we have seen this light — because, as Zechariah prophesied, we have been given this light “to guide our feet in the way of peace” (Luke 1:79) — we may ourselves be, as Paul put it, “children of light” even amidst a gloomy night.
May God grant it.