Human beings have a very uncertain relationship with darkness. On the one hand, we need it, because we need the nighttime; we were created to sleep at night, and we badly need that. Beyond that, it’s only in the night that we see the stars, which add beauty to our world and remind us that there are other worlds beyond our own.
On the other hand, though, there is much that we dislike and fear about darkness, because it limits us. It limits our ability to do things, for instance. Jesus referenced this fact in a conversation recorded in John 9, saying, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.” He was of course talking about his death, but to do so, he drew on a commonplace of his time: people can only work during the day. That’s why, for most of human history, the changing seasons have had a profound effect on the rhythms of human activity; and it’s why, as those who study this will tell you, the invention of the electric light was one of the key technologies that made the modern age possible, because it enabled us to continue our work into the night. The really interesting thing about this is the way in which, in classic human fashion, we’ve taken this too far and turned it almost into a war on the night, to the point where light pollution is becoming a major problem and we’re disrupting the rhythms of nocturnal creatures and migratory birds—and, along the way, ourselves.
Even so, darkness still limits us, even as we try to light up as much of it as we can; and even more than limiting our ability to work, it limits our ability to control our surroundings. We can’t see where we’re going in the dark, and so we bump into obstacles and trip over things; and we can’t protect ourselves the way we want to, because we can’t see who or what might be out there. This is why children are afraid of the dark, because their imaginations can range where their eyes cannot see, conjuring up all sorts of things that exist only in their fears and worries. When our power was cutting in and out this past weekend, I ended up running out to the store so that we’d have little candles for the girls’ rooms, in case the power stayed out and their nightlights didn’t work.
The truth is, though they have nothing to be afraid of in their rooms, their back-brains are operating out of a sound instinct: the darkness isn’t safe. It may not in fact have anything bad or harmful in it in any given place, but you can’t know that for certain without lighting it up; and depending on where you are, and who you are, there might very well be. Darkness is and has always been the ally of those who would hurt others; and even those who ordinarily wouldn’t may be tempted to do so by the opportunities it presents. The 1977 New York City blackout, which turned the five boroughs into one big city-wide crime spree, is perhaps the outstanding example of this reality. As well, darkness is the natural environment of those who would conceal the truth and deceive others; that’s why we say that someone who doesn’t know what’s really going on is “in the dark.” This is why the modern world, taking its cue from the arrogance of a bunch of 18th-century French atheists, learned to express its sense of its own superiority to the rest of human existence by calling itself “enlightened” and previous times “the Dark Ages.”
Of course, darkness isn’t bad in and of itself; when God made the world, he made both day and night, and he called them both good. It’s our sin that has blighted the darkness, by finding it such a natural home for its own activities; the real problem is the darkness in our hearts, the part of us that shrinks away and hides from the light of God, to avoid being revealed for what it is. I sometimes wonder if that isn’t the darkness we’re trying to ward off with all our lights—and maybe especially as Christmas approaches. After all, you can do a lot of things to decorate for Christmas, in a lot of different styles, pulling a lot of different themes, but they all involve light—lots and lots of light. Lights on Christmas trees, on houses, on businesses, and strung with garlands and wreaths across the intersections; light-up wire deer, reindeer, even polar bears (and I really wanted to get Sara a light-up wire polar bear the other Christmas, but it just wasn’t in the budget); light-up Santa Claus, Frosty, and nutcrackers; even lights on the cactus in the front yard, if you live in Arizona. That one still gets me.
However you do it, though, whatever else you do, the agreement seems to be clear that decorating “properly” for Christmas involves lots of lights; and I think part of it, at least for a lot of people, is at some level an attempt to hold back the darkness. I think it’s part of our culture’s great tacit agreement that this is the time of year that we all get together and try to pretend as hard as we can that the darkness isn’t really there—that “’tis the season to be jolly,” and you’d better keep up. But while that may well be the best that much of the world can do, that’s not what Christmas is all about. That’s not what the good news of God is all about.
Consider the passage from Isaiah that Pam read earlier: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” Did that remind you of Psalm 23? “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” This is the promise of God—a promise that takes the darkness of our world and our lives seriously, and confronts it head-on. This is what people who deride Christianity as “pie in the sky” or some sort of fantasy wish-fulfillment thing miss, that the message of God isn’t the least bit unrealistic about our world; it isn’t at all about pretending that things are better than they are, or sticking our heads in the sand in denial of all the bad things that happen. We as Christians may be guilty of that in some times and places, but the gospel is about something very different indeed.
The gospel begins where the world lives, coming to a people walking in darkness, living in the land of the shadow of death. God doesn’t send the light to people who think life is wonderful, he sends it into the darkness. Jesus wasn’t born at high noon of mid-summer in a wealthy society, he was born in the middle of the night to a blue-collar family in an occupied nation; and though he was probably born in the spring, the church decided to celebrate his birth during the darkest part of the year, the time when the night is longest and coldest, to emphasize the darkness into which he was born. And when Jesus was born, the announcement didn’t go out to the wealthy and powerful of his nation—it didn’t even go out to the religious leaders, whom you would think should have been watching for him; instead, it went out to the people on the very bottom of the socio-economic-religious totem pole: the shepherds. (Ironically, these were likely the shepherds who watched the Temple’s flocks, the flocks which produced the Passover lambs and the sacrifices for the Day of Atonement, and since they were out in the fields with the sheep, it was probably lambing time; it was really quite appropriate that they witness the birth of the Lamb of God. But most people wouldn’t have seen them in that way.) Jesus came in the darkness, because that’s where the world is, and he came to those in need, because they’re the ones who know it.
It’s all too easy to forget that, when things are going well, when we have family and friends around us; it’s easy, when we have food on the table, money to pay the bills, and lots of love and joy in our lives, to wrap ourselves in a little bubble of light and let ourselves forget the darkness. It’s easy to forget that there are those in darkness who need the light. That’s a terrible thing, because there are many hurting people for whom this world is dark indeed. Those who are lonely, those who feel unloved or rejected, know well the darkness of the world; so do those who are struggling to keep their marriage together, or who are trying as hard as they can to help someone they love get free of an addiction to drugs or alcohol, or to do so themselves. So do those among us who have recently had someone they love die, who have lost the light they knew in that person’s life. For them, the world can be very dark, and it can be very hard to see any light at all.
This is why, as much as we emphasize the light, we need to take our cue from John and remember the darkness, too. “Light” is one of John’s favorite words, popping up all over his gospel, but he never forgot where the light shines—it shines in the darkness. And note that present tense—not “shone,” but “shines.” God said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and that light hasn’t stopped shining yet. The light of the Word, who is the Light of the World, shone into the darkness at the beginning of creation, lighting everything as the world was spun out of nothing; the light continued to shine on, and in, the first human beings; after their fall into sin, it continued to shine through the darkness of our fallen world; it shone most brightly of all in Jesus, when the Word was born as a fellow human being; and it continues to shine through his teaching, and—however imperfectly—through us, the church he left behind him, who are his body.
In the darkness, the light shines. The darkness tried to put out the light, nailing Jesus to a cross, but even there, it failed, for the light only shone far brighter when he rose again from the grave. The light shines, and the darkness did not overcome it, for it cannot. Though battles still rage, the war is over; the victory is won. Jesus has won.
These are the “tidings of comfort and joy” which we bring at Christmas—not just “be happy because everybody else is happy,” but “be happy because no matter how dark things get, the light still shines.” As the carol has it, “Let nothing you dismay; remember, Christ our savior was born upon this day to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray.” To celebrate Christmas by pretending for a while that the darkness isn’t there is to miss the point entirely; the message of Christmas is that God knows the darkness in this world—including the darkness you face, whatever it may be, however deep it may be—and that he sent Jesus to deal with it. Jesus is God’s answer to the darkness in our world; he came because of the darkness, to light up the darkness, and ultimately dispel it.