In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 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.
We know the story so well. During the reign of the emperor Augustus a decree went out that all the people of the Roman Empire must register for ia census. A man, Joseph, from the House of David, and his betrothed, Mary, who was with child, went from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Joseph’s ancestors. While they were there, it came time for Mary to deliver her child. When this child whom she called Jesus had been born, Mary laid him in a manger because there was no room at the inn. Shepherds watching their sheep by night looked up in the sky and saw an angel proclaiming the miracle of this holy birth and then more and more appeared till the heavens were filled with a host of angels who sang hymns to glorify the Lord for the birth of the most holy child.
Thousands of years later, as we have year after year, we stop and in the magnificent words of the Gospel of John remind ourselves, 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.
I have been thinking a lot about light and dark, recently. If you take a flight into Fort Lauderdale Airport on a clear night and are landing from West to East, you will go over the Everglades for several minutes and if you are sitting at a window, you will see dark and darker shades of dark slip past you in the night. Then suddenly, up ahead, there is a line like a line drawn in the sand, a seemingly endless trail of light that extends as far as the eye can see in either direction. If you are like me, there’s a sense of relief that the journey is almost over.
During the final approach, when the plane is so low you could reach out and touch those stars glittering below you, it is likely that you will see one light that towers above the others, that dims all the rest, a hard and calculating light that flashes and beckons endlessly, a light that illuminates the darkness and yet, turns out to be a light that reveals nothing and leaves nothing to the imagination. It is the Hard Rock Casino on 441 and when I have seen that light I have to ask myself: is it in the light that I find my hope or is it in the darkness?
Surely, the question had to be asked in the days of Jesus’ birth. I imagine that there were places all through the Roman Empire where light shone more brightly than anywhere else, places where the crowds were gathered, where the dresses were a little flashier and the laughter a little louder, where there was more wine and fancier food and amazing art. There were also places of darkness like the Everglades, that no one wanted to go near, places that roiled with the mystery of the wilderness and the unexpected.
The Roman Empire was thriving and if nothing else, people knew what to expect, and how to behave, where to go and how to get there. There was order. It’s just that there was something else too. Someone far more eloquent than I has said that the Romans made synonyms of order and desolation (1). It was the order that is possible only with fear and oppression. It was the order of those who conquered and those forced to submit, winners and losers.
We can safely assume that the Son of God was born in relative darkness, that the shepherds who visited strained to see this Christ child because the fire that burned that night in the stable was small and cast as many shadows as light. I bet the fire was as weak and improbable as the tiny child who lay in the manger.
And yet. And yet it was there, it was precisely there, that all the hopes, all the promises, all the possibilities of creation were made manifest in their full glory. While surely there were –people partying, living it up, maybe even casting lots—in Rome, on a cold, dark night in Bethlehem, a young family gave quiet testimony to another possibility.
The Gospel of John tells us, 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.
That night in Bethlehem, when order and desolation were one, in the darkness that was the darkness of God, the gift was the gift of life—life with all its mess, confusion and complexity. Life was the gift. Life was the light. And that light who we call Jesus, would not have amounted to much of anything if it had not called others—others like you and I—to itself, into the kind of life that respects darkness as dark as the Everglades and light as seemingly insignificant as the light we are capable of casting in this place tonight. The light we call Emmanuel extended an invitation to a life of decency. Of generosity. Of hospitality. Of hope—not some gauzy, hazy version of magical thinking—but the kind of hope that makes people not quit, that allows them to forgive, to risk trying something new or to try again. A life not of consumption but of holiness.
It is an infinitely fragile light, always at risk of being extinguished. It is a flame that casts long shadows, shadows that God can move in and create anew, surprising us and making life out of death (2). It is a light dependent on individual lives and daily choices. It is a light that we are all woven into on this dark and lovely and unsettling night. The true light still shines. It shines and the darkness has not over come it.
(1) Marilynn Robinson–http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20121210JJ.shtml
(2) Rainer Maria Rilke–Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy