What does true darkness look like? You might think this a peculiar way to begin a sermon for Christmas Day, but I think it is a valid question. From the Autumnal equinox we begin a journey into deep darkness as our days grow shorter and our nights grow longer. Many of us dread the end of Daylight-Saving Time when we set our clocks back an hour. Even though we enjoy some extra sleep that night, we find our Monday afternoon commute home after work disorienting because it looks and feels more like 9 pm rather than 5 pm. On this Christmas Day, we now find ourselves with a glint of hope in our eyes, having just passed the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. We can now count on our days to increase in length as we journey towards the light, yearning for those long summer evenings and the experience of watching the sunset at the end of a warm weekend day.
Keeping this in mind, I would like to return to my original question: What does true darkness look like? I suspect most of us will have a different answer for this question. The condition of your eyesight and how well you see might determine how you experience darkness. Some might think of darkness metaphorically, especially those of us who have experienced depression, addiction, or know what it feels like to receive a distressing medical diagnosis, or the loss of a loved one. Perhaps it depends on the places we have traveled to or have lived in our life. If you have had the chance to live in Alaska, you might have a different perspective on darkness where there are places that go dark for about two months. Those of us who live in a city like Boston might have to create darkness in order to sleep, covering our eyes at night with a mask to block out the artificial light of the city that penetrates our curtains and blinds.
Growing up in the mountains of Appalachia, miles away from city light, I can attest to the beauty of a night sky peppered with stars on a cold winter evening. I recall that shortly after I got my driver’s license when I was sixteen years old, I was driving home after dark one weekend night after visiting my best friend whose family lived a little-ways out in the country. There were no street lights on those country back roads and when I got to a straight stretch, I decided to see how dark it would be if I switched off the headlights to my car. Traveling 45 miles per hour with no cars ahead or behind me, I switched them off for about three seconds. I recall it being intensely dark, thrilling, and terrifying all at the same time, traveling that fast on a narrow road into total darkness. I have to admit this was not one of my ‘brightest ideas,’ pun intended.
This morning’s gospel lesson is not packaged up sweetly in a Christmas manger scene like we read in the other synoptic gospels and see in the olive wood creche here before us. The beginning of John’s gospel, known as the Prologue is an early Christian hymn, most likely originating in first-century Johannine communities, serving as an overture to a deep theological treatise about Jesus and his life and ministry.[i] It is divided into two major sections bookended by the Prologue we just heard and an Epilogue, and is filled with metaphorical illustrations such as the ‘I AM’ statements of Jesus (I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd, I am the vine, I am the way, etc.).[ii] But the major theme is about darkness and light. We read mid-way though verse three: What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. The syntax of this statement is striking to me as it states what is current: The light shines in the darkness. And what never happened: and the darkness did not overcome it. This is why I opened with the question: What does true darkness look like? To go deeper you could ask yourself, what does true darkness feel like? Or even, what does darkness represent to me?
For the gospel writer of John, themes of light and darkness represent respectively good and evil, truth and deception. In his commentary on the gospel of John, former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple explains it this way: This darkness in which the light shines unabsorbed is cosmic. St. John is most modern here. The evil which for him presents the problem is not only in men’s hearts, it is in the whole ordered system of nature. That ordered system is infected, “it lieth in the evil one.” [iii]Darkness to John is not simply the time of night when we close our eyes to get restorative sleep, but rather intense, disorienting, and terrifying darkness that is beyond our comprehension and control. This darkness is so cunning, it can be experienced in broad daylight. When someone is deceived we say that they were ‘kept in the dark,’ even though others around them see the situation clearly and may have known the truth all along. In our civil discourse these days we are familiar with terms like ‘fake news,’ and ‘alternative facts,’ as we try to determine what is really truth and what might be a deceptive façade. Is climate change real or ‘fake news?’ Are our government leaders lying to us or simply giving us ‘alternative facts?’ What is right and what is wrong? What is up and what is down? If we are honest, it may feel like we are on a small country road, traveling at a high rate of speed with no headlights, disoriented, terrified, and unable to navigate our way safely.
But the good news of John’s gospel is about the light. Even though we do not get the ‘warm and fuzzies’ we associate with the traditional nativity readings such as the one we experienced last night from the gospel of Luke, we do get a sense of the epic power of light. This light is the Word of God, present from before the beginning of creation and that permeates this present darkness as a beacon of truth and hope. This light that John refers to as the Word of God does not deceive and all who are attracted to it know truth. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. The Greek word used for ‘overcome,’ can also mean ‘comprehend.’ While both words are true in light of John’s statement, it may be illuminating to hear it this way: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it, or understand it. Light is unknowable to darkness. Light cannot be penetrated by darkness. Rather the opposite is true. Light penetrates and cleaves the darkness and while it has not as of yet dispelled the darkness, it cannot be quenched, understood, or overcome by it.
And this is where the gospel writer of John brings us figuratively to the manger in Bethlehem. This Word of God, this ultimate truth, this beacon of hope became incarnated in human flesh. John’s second impactful theological statement reads: And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. It is in the midst of great darkness that the life and light of God became enfleshed in this child of Mary and Joseph who was called Jesus. It is in Jesus that God sent out a beacon of light that all who are lost in this great night might see it and turn towards it in order to find their way home. It is in Jesus that God has in a sense turned on the headlights in order for us to navigate the small, winding, disorienting roads that are enveloped in intense darkness. This beacon of light was made known to us in a small child born in a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem and in our human vesture grew to become the foundation of light, through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, insuring that darkness, deception, fear, and death will never be able to quench, understand, or overcome the light and life of God. Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ [iv]All of those who turn to Jesus, and follow His example of love, grace, and mercy will not only reflect His great light, but be absorbed by it and become one with it, assuring that we too will never be dispelled, quenched, understood, or overcome by darkness. The founder of our community Richard Meux Benson wrote: “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.”[v]
While we all may have different experiences as to what darkness looks like, we can all turn to this baby represented here in the olive wood creche and know as one community what light looks and feels like. In this small beacon of light we can place our hope and look forward to the future dispelling of all darkness. It is in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ who overcame deep death and darkness once and for all that we can bring our deepest darkness, lifting up our hands and offering it to Him and in return receive a piece of bread and a sip of wine, Jesus’ body and blood and continue with assurance toward the growing light, becoming ourselves beacons of Jesus light, life, and love, enlightening a world enveloped in cosmic darkness. Let us pray:
O God, you have caused our cosmic darkness[vi] to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
[i] Brown, Raymond Edward., and Francis J. Moloney. An Introduction to the Gospel of John. Yale Univ. Press, 2010.
[ii] I AM: the bread of life (John 6:35, 41, 48, 51); the light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5); the door (John 10:7, 9); the good shepherd (John 10:11, 14); the resurrection and the life (John 11:25); the way, truth, life (John 14:6); the true vine (John 15:1, 5)
[iii] Temple, William. Readings in St. John’s Gospel: (First Series: Chapters I-XII). Macmillan, 1939.
[iv] John 8:12
[v] Benson, Richard Meux. The Final Passover, Vol. 2, p. 402
[vi] This Collect for Christmas Day (BCP page 212) actually reads: “O God, you have caused this holy night to shine…”
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