When I was in Kenya, everyone looked forward to getting their hands on Time Magazine’s Year in Review and Life Magazine’s The Year in Pictures. Given the mail in Kenya we would receive these two magazines, along with the Christmas cards – all about 4-5 weeks after Christmas. I have to admit we would dive into the magazines to see what had happened in the world that somehow never quite made it to the slums where we lived. I always went to the back of the magazines to see what famous person had passed away and to see what other key news there was to glean – oh man!, the Doobie Brother’s broke up! Eventually I would move to the front of the magazines and review the year. It was always somewhat depressing. I was working with Rwandan refugees who had fled the massacre and killing fields of their homeland and were now strangers in the strange land of Kenya. In a certain myopic way we all sort of hoped this was the only dark corner of the world. But as we turned the pages of the magazine it was a litany of death, doom, fire, flood, famine, pestilence and plague – darkness it seemed was everywhere. That memory always comes to me when I come to this Gospel.
The gospel echoed the creation story in Genesis, “In the beginning….” There are words here that speak about eternity and the life of the world and the light of all people. Good words. Strong words. Poetic words. Words that are beautiful, but also words that are difficult to pin down. These are the kind of words that call people to wrestle with their meaning. Simple words such as: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
I struggle with these words a little bit because they do not say what I want them to say. I want them to declare – especially so at Christmas – that when the light comes into the world it annihilates, it wipes out the darkness. I want darkness to be defeated and to trouble me no more. I want every sadness, every despair, every raw deal, every tragedy, every evil plan, every life-draining disease gone. I want it all tossed into a cosmic trash bin. I want the light to arrive and to win, and I want it to win big. I mean I want the light to deal with the darkness in a way that is overwhelming, so completely devastating, that I can know that it is not halftime. There is no comeback. It’s game over….. well.. that’s what I want.
We don’t hear those words. We get something much more reserved in John’s Gospel. The light came into the world, and the darkness did not overcome it. That does not sound too threatening. I can imagine darkness kinda’ casting a sideways glance at the light and thinking, “Hmm, interesting.” I imagine darkness just shrugging its shoulders and going back to work. You know doing that which drags humanity down, that which nibbles at the edges of people’s fractured souls, that which sneaks up on people to devastate them when they least expect it. To haunt our news headlines and our lives with the next natural or human disaster. Darkness hasn’t been devastated, it seems to have hardly been diminished …It wasn’t what I was hoping for when the Light of Christ came into the world.
Year ago, as part of a youth retreat for Advent we had as our theme the Isaiah verse traditionally read at the midnight Mass. As part of the retreat we found an unused, large storage room in the mountain retreat house, down in the cellar. We took the teens down into the cellar, got everyone comfortably settled and then let them know that we were going to turn out the lights. Our youth minister simply said “You are people who walk in darkness; who dwell in the land of gloom.” – and turned out the lights.
It was really dark in there. There wasn’t a single stray photon or Higgs boson bouncing around that could make an impression on a human retina. It was totally dark. Scary dark.
A few teens gasped. Then it got pretty quiet. We waited. In the hush and in the dark, we sat. We sat and waited. There were some hushed whimpers, a sniffle or two. After five surprisingly long, silent, and absolutely dark minutes, the youth leader’s voice arose from the pitch black read the words, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone – on them light has shined.”
With those words she struck a match and lit a small candle. By no means did that small candle fill the vast room with light, but all the same it changed things. It changed us completely. With the flickering of the light, people saw themselves, and they saw each other. They saw faces – surprised faces, puzzled faces, and even a couple of faces streaked with tears. And then smiles formed and blossomed. Smiles they remember these many years later. For those in deep darkness, a little light made all the difference, all the difference in the world.
“The light shines in the darkness,” writes John. Maybe that’s the thing. It is not that the light obliterates the darkness; it is simply that the light is there. In the light we see each other, we see God. We hear the good news – the darkness has not overcome it. This is the message of the Christmas – the story behind the Christmas stories that we will tell each other this day.
God enters into the darkness to sit alongside of us. God refuses to dwell in the heavens above and from a safe distance watch the drama of human life play out in the darkness. Instead, God climbs right into the darkest places to be with us; and in that holy and luminous action, we find hope.
And so God enters the darkness, the edge history, he comes to the edges our lives to speak quietly but through the labor pains of a young mother and cry of her infant son that we are loved; forever loved. That God is forever for us, joined to our ups and down, our hopes and fears, and committed to giving us something more. Christ comes not just to give us more of the life we know, but new and abundant life altogether. For in the Christ child we have the promise fulfilled that this day a Savior has been born – out here in the darkness – for us. In the Christ child we have the promise that each one of us is embraced and caught up in God’s tremendous love – who gave us his only Son. And that is the good news – The light came into the world, and the darkness did not overcome it. They are words that give hope, give faith and if we hold to the light, these words bring salvation for all who believe in his name.
What better gift is there?