We come on Christmas Eve to hear the story of the Bethlehem babe, the familiar shepherds and angels, the star and the stable but John’s gospel tells the story differently. In this mysterious poetry we find none of the usual touch points. Instead we hear this cosmic nuance that feels almost elusive. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It’s intended to take us back to the story of Genesis and creation, the sheer power of divine love infused into the creation process. Now with our scientific knowledge it takes us back some 14 billion years. Suddenly we are not celebrating a 2000-year birthday but the light of Christ here, present since the beginning, whatever that might mean.
Like all good poetry one could write a book on these fourteen verses from John’s gospel. I think I’ll take the lead from the text and not burden you with a thesis but instead delve into the depths of one small verse. And that is: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” It seems fitting two days after the winter solstice to talk about light and darkness.
We have this biological predisposition to categorize the world and our experiences into either-or categories: into limiting binaries. Although this helped us with survival once upon a time, now it is more burden than blessing. To even talk about light and dark is to set up a false dichotomy. There is the problem too with the history of using light as a synonym for good and dark for bad. This is particularly problematic when it comes to race. Any attempt to see the world in either or terms is a harkening back to a more primitive state and not particularly helpful in a complex and gray world. I handle this poetry tenderly with awareness that light and dark have been mishandled and used to cause harm.
Besides many have travelled the dark night of the soul and found it to be the fertile ground from which new life arises. To suggest that the shadows are a place of lingering threats is to lose the stillness the shadows and awakening of all other senses when our eyes fail us.
The light in John’s gospel is the Christ light and there is an assertion in this text that the Christ light has always been, meaning the birth of Jesus was not some biological anomaly or some divine miraculous intervention, it was more simply a moment of the Christ light coming into the world in a new way, in human form. It seems to me, if this light always was then it always will be, and certainly still is, right here right now. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
When we speak about light shining in the darkness so much comes to mind. There’s the promise of the morning light, especially when there is not a cloud in the sky and the first glimmer of daylight pours through a window with the anticipation of a new day. Or the last moment before the sun finally sets and the pink glow lingers on the horizon as if saying, rest now and remember tomorrow will come. A candle lit in an otherwise darkened room and the wonder at just how much light a single flame can bring. A flashlight guiding the way back to camp on a summer’s night intermingled with the sounds of the earth under foot. Christmas lights spurring the annual tradition of piling the family into the car to drive in circles in pursuit of the most spectacular display. Light and dark aren’t just metaphors they’re tangible touchstones in the rhythm of our lives. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
And then there are fireworks. I’ve never been much of a fan of fireworks. I’ve never understood the appeal. Staying up late surrounded by strangers and their children who would be better off home in bed: I just find them to be a noisy bit of disappointment. Fireworks are these blasts of light overwhelming the dark sky and then the waiting and waiting and the unpredictable rhythm before the next one gives you a jolt. Fifteen minutes of disappointing escape and then all you’re left with is a dark smoky sky and a traffic jam.
To my surprise even I have begun to have a change of heart about fireworks. My bah-humbug attitude has been challenged by, of all things, an obscure little poem. There’s a column in the New York Times Magazine that takes a sentence, and plays with it, reinterpreting it in creative and unexpected ways. Here’s the line that has shifted my perspective on fireworks.
‘And you’ll roll your eyes while “Born in the U.S.A.” plays while fireworks fly screaming into the sky, tucking all its darkness into their pockets.’ Focus in with me on the second half: “fireworks fly screaming into the sky, tucking all its darkness into their pockets. Tucking all its darkness into their pockets.’ Here’s what journalist Sam Anderson has to say about this line:
It ingeniously reverses their motion: Instead of tendrils of light exploding outward, overwriting the darkness, these fireworks gather the darkness into themselves. They are like teenagers stuffing their pockets with candy, ravenous for the night. Violent illuminations arriving, out of nowhere, to hoard the darkness. That would be something worth staring at,” he says.
Instead of the fireworks just filling the sky momentarily masking the darkness with their obscene burst of light they are stuffing the darkness into their pockets. Do you see it? The light isn’t just masking the darkness but embracing it, holding it. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. Here’s where it gets interesting. The word “overcome” can also be translated grasp or seize. The darkness did not overcome it, could not grasp the light, could not seize the light. What if we used the metaphor of fireworks to think of the light? The Christ light like the fireworks is gathering all the darkness and shoving it in its pockets.
What if Jesus wasn’t born to obliterate the shadows but instead to gather them up into the deepest pockets ever; to seize the darkness, not to mask it or suffocate it but to pull it in in the most intimate way. Seems to me if the light is stuffing the darkness into its pockets then there is room in the heart of the divine to hold every evil we throw at it. This is a shift from a black and white world, from a winner and loser mentality, from our us and them tendencies to an all encompassing Light that comes into the world, again and again, since the beginning actually, and reaches out with never ending tendrils of light gathering up all the broken bits of our lives.
You know how we talk about sin as being separation from self, God, neighbour and creation? What if the light comes to bring it all back together? In seizing the darkness, and shoving those separated bits into deep, deep pockets drawing ever closer to the oneness that is our origin and our destination? What better way to break down the resistance of our hardened hearts than to birth that light in a helpless, little baby? You might hate fireworks but everyone loves a baby.
What if we came to Christmas this year willing to see that the light radiating from the manger is born in our hearts again and again, since the beginning? What if we took each moment as an opportunity to seize the darkness into the pockets of our light?
We are about to sing of hearing the bells on Christmas Day. Listen to its call to the hear the bells; the invitation to hear a voice, a chime, a chant sublime. May the bells be our reminder to step into our calling to be a people who testify to the light, no matter the odds, no matter the fears, no matter the doubts, or the shadows. Maybe there is room for all the separated bits of our world and our hearts, in the pockets of the light born in Bethlehem all those years ago. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”