In the traditional stories of the Nativity, Matthew and Luke give vivid description of Jesus’ birth. We are told how Mary and Joseph made their way to Bethlehem, and there was no room for them in the Inn. We hear of angels coming to sing to the shepherds with God’s glory shining bright, and the shepherds finding the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. We learn of the star that appeared in the night sky signifying Jesus’ birth and how the magi traveled great distances over the course of two years all the way to Bethlehem to worship the young king. In these narratives, images of light play important roles.
On the First Sunday of Christmas we usually read the Prologue to John’s gospel. Rather than focusing on the story of the actual birth, John turns to metaphors. He tells us how the Word existed with God, and describes how life envelopes the Word. John writes that the life found in the Word was the light of all people. He declares that, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Or, as the Amplified translation of the Bible puts it: “And the Light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness has never overpowered it [put it out or absorbed it or appropriated it, and is unreceptive to it].” Another version simply states, “the darkness did not comprehend it.”
The Greek words are ou katelaben— the negative ou and a compound verb in the simple past tense. Literally it reads the darkness “did not overtake” the light.
But there is a nuance here as well, something that the Amplified version tries to get at. In no way has the darkness snuffed out that flicker of light that began as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. The darkness has not absorbed the light of the baby Jesus, or appropriated it or put it out, and it is completely and forever unreceptive to the goodness of Christ’s light.
That simple past tense also connotes that the action is both in the past but also lasts forever. Not only did the darkness not smother the light when Jesus was born, it never has, and it never will.
When you live in a world of darkness, that is good news indeed. We’ve experienced a lot about the darkness this Advent season. We’re dealing with another spike in a deadly global pandemic. Some have lost jobs or income sources. Others have had health complications, or experienced the death of someone they love. Some are dealing with depression or journeying with someone who has an addiction.
In other words, the darkness seems pretty powerful right now. And that just doesn’t feel right at this time of year.
As Charlie Brown puts it at the opening of his Christmas special when he and Linus are leaning against a wall, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”
Charlie Brown spends the day bemoaning the way consumerism has taken over Christmas (and this was first released in 1965!). He just doesn’t understand it, and finally—in the middle of a rehearsal for the Christmas play—he cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus replies, “Sure, I can tell you what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. Lights please,” he adds and the house lights dim in the auditorium as a spot light trains on him.
Linus begins with the familiar words of the King James Bible. “There were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not:” and then the most amazing thing of all happens at that moment. Just when Linus says those two words, “Fear not,” he drops that blue security blanket that is never out of his hands, and his face glows as he continues. “For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
What fear do you need to let go of this year? What is it that keeps you from sleep or haunts your days? What is it that paralyzes you? No matter what it is, no matter what amount of darkness is in your life right now, we hear the promise of God this morning, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overtake it.” That is the simple beauty of Christmas. This season is not about presents or wrappings, or packages, boxes or bags. It is about the light of God coming down into the world in order to bring us love and peace. Christ, the very Son of God, was born in human flesh for us. For you. For me.
I promise you, no matter what darkness is in your life, no matter what fear you are holding onto, God offers you the saving light of Jesus, a light that withstands all the darkness of this world. As we gather and remember our joy and our hope in Christ’s birth, we trust that God’s promise is true and that with the coming of Christ we will know the changing power of God’s love. May it be so.
Photo by wal_172619 on Pixabay.