The year 2016 will be one we remember for quite some time. I’ve noticed that some years of my life fade into oblivion, to some far corner of my memory with nothing of substance with which to catalog them. I can recall a memory or two from those years to be sure, but then I will rack my brain trying to decipher if the incident I am remembering happened when I was 8 or 12, if it was 1978 or 1982, or if Olivia was 3 or 5 when something happened. These past 12 months however will not be like that. A contentious election, the horror of Aleppo, the rise of hate-filled violence against religious and ethnic minorities around the globe, the abundance of fear.
And yet in spite of the year we have had, in spite of all that we have seen and the unimaginable images that have become reality, life still goes on. We gather to celebrate again the coming of the Lord, the birth of this babe. We come to the manger and stand among the animals and shepherds and angels and witness this amazing gift yet again. This one named Jesus was made flesh, and he dwells among us.
John’s gospel focuses less on the story of it all and more on the theology.
He tells us that the Word with God from the very beginning of time. He tells us that this same one had life and light dwelling in him. That the Word came into the world to shine light among the darkness and that the darkness—no matter how evil, no matter how powerful—could not overcome the light. It could not overcome the Word made flesh.
This year when the darkness of the world seems pervasive, we are reminded again that the Word of God was sent to be a beacon of light for the world. And yet even when he was standing there in front of the world, the world didn’t have the foggiest idea of who he was.
How can this be? How could the world not see in him the light? How could it not see the life that would be for all people? How could the world not know him?
How can we not know him?
I think sometimes the darkness in this world confounds us into thinking it is not all that dark after all. Oh there are times when we wander around in the dark with our hands outstretched and walking slowly and deliberately so we don’t fall flat on our faces. In those times, just a flicker of light brings us running to it. But there are other times when we live amidst the darkness and try to get on with life as normal. We begin to imagine that perhaps the dark isn’t as dark as we thought it was, and we can make it on our own or just keep going as we always have. And so we live brazenly in the world of darkness thinking we do not need the light.
When was in college, I did an internship at a church, and my primary role was to work with the youth group there. In addition to the weekly youth meetings, I also visit church members at the local hospital. During the first week of my internship, I met Violet. She was an older woman who had begun to attend the church just before I arrived. Unfortunately, she had also just been diagnosed with cancer.
Over the course of the summer, I visited Violet many times, and each time I could see that the disease was progressing. I began dreading coming to see her, more because I didn’t know what to say than for any other reason—as an undergrad student, I hadn’t had any classes in pastoral counseling, and my instruction from the minister overseeing me was to go see patients and pray with them for a few minutes. This just didn’t seem to be enough, and I didn’t know what to pray for either. Should I pray for a complete healing? A dulling of the pain? A longevity of life? A painless death?
One time in particular at the end of the summer, I came to visit Violet. Her eyes were wandering and wild and the nurse was trying to calm her down. When I walked in, the nurse asked me to sit with Violet so the nurse could do other work. As I sat there holding her hand, Violet looked over and recognized me. She asked if I could get the catheter removed from her since it caused her pain. When I looked over at the nurse, her eyes told me it couldn’t be removed.
I looked back to Violet and stroked her careworn hand. I could see the pain in her face and I held back my tears. I asked Violet if she wanted me to pray. She gave my hand a squeeze.
I don’t have any idea what I said. The words came out, I’m sure, but it was as if I was stumbling along in the dark with arms outstretched in front of me. After what felt like an eternity I gave up and said an “Amen.”
I looked over at Violet, but her eyes were still closed. I thought maybe she hadn’t heard me finish praying or maybe she had drifted off to sleep. I was ready to drop her hand and slip out of the room quietly.
But then I heard her voice. She was praying. She was speaking to God, not on her own behalf, but on mine. She was asking God to remain with me always, to be with me throughout my life’s journey, to bless me.
I saw light that day. It was an ordinary day by most accounts, no major news events, nothing special in the wider world. But it was a significant day for me. I saw that there was a woman who, even though she was dying, cared more about others than herself. I saw someone who had a faith that remained strong in the face of an illness, and that the light of Jesus Christ within her could not be overcome by the darkness.
That was the last time I saw Violet. She died a couple of days later without much fanfare. An ordinary day in the summer of 1991.
This year, some 25 years later, we have seen much darkness. And we gather to see the light of Christ come into the world this glorious morning. This Christmastide—these 12 Days stretching before us—may we look for the light of God in our world and in our own lives. There is much to be done to share that light with others. And it may be as simple as sharing a meal with a neighbor or reading a book to a child or praying with a woman dying of cancer or reaching out to the lost, the lonely or the refugee. By doing so, by receiving him and believing in his name, John tells us that we will be given power to become the children of God, the ones who can show that light in the world. His light shall never be overcome no matter how dark or evil or wretched things become. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” May we shine that light in these days ahead, knowing that it was for this very reason that Jesus came into the world. May it be so. Amen.