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Behold, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
--John 1:4

Forget the birth stories with their shepherds, wise men and angels.  Forget about theological arguments concerning the possibility of a virgin birth or how a person is preserved from original sin.  And forget for a moment the most often quoted passage from John's gospel (John 3:16, of course) which is just as often rammed down people's throats as it is used to inspire faith.  This Christmas, forget about all of that for a moment and instead reflect on this most poetic of verses from John's gospel that, in my opinion, captures everything that Christmas is about.

Behold, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Late December is the darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere.  The night can seem almost endless, and the cold unbearable.  These days we complain about how we are freezing as we have to walk from the car into the shopping mall when the temperature drops down below freezing.  We complain when our journeys of hundreds of miles are delayed by a few hours because our iron birds need a bit of de-icing.  Some people even suffer seasonal affective disorders because of the lack of sunlight.  Imagine, then, how much more significant this darkest time of the year was to people of the ancient world who had no electric lighting or furnace vents in every room of the house.  Turn off the thermostat and the lights for just one day in the winter and you'll begin to understand that this was not just a metaphor.

But for some reason, the pagan celebrations of the Roman Empire that centered around the solstice were not gloomy.  In the darkest time of the year, people instead celebrated the rebirth of “sol invictus,” the unconquered sun.  The shortest day of the year meant that the light was on the comeback and not that darkness had triumphed.  And it is easy to see why Christians could easily choose this time to celebrate the birth of the one they considered to be a light shining in the darkness that the darkness could never overcome.

But the great thing about this time of year and this day is that whether you be pagan or Christian or both or neither, you can still appreciate the meaning of this season that is so powerfully captured in those words:

Behold, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

One thing I absolutely love about that verse is that it is written in the present tense.  The light shines.  The darkness has not overcome.  But this statement in the present tense leaves the battle unresolved.  It is a statement of hope more than it is a statement of faith.  The light is shining now.  The darkness has not overcome it.  The darkness has not overcome it...and will be defeated?  Or is it the darkness has not overcome it...yet?  The light shines now, it has not been overcome.  But is that light brightening or diminishing?  Nothing is mentioned about the vanquishing of the darkness.  The light shines, but darkness is not banished.  The light shines IN the darkness.  It is surrounded by it.  In some ways it is defined by it.  But it has not been overcome by it.

We know the days are starting to get longer even now.  But how many in those ancient times knew for certain they would survive to see the spring and summer when the sun was once again truly triumphant?  Unconquered is not yet triumphant.  And what better time to celebrate the birth of a new life?  Each new child seems to hold the potential for anything and everything.  Within those tiny little hands lies the potential for the salvation of the world.  Just think of the hands that have supported you, protected you, helped you up, pushed or pulled you back to the right path, touched you or embraced you and how powerful those hands seemed at the time and then reflect on the fact that those hands were once so small they could barely grasp your finger.  That's the potential in those tiny little hands and feet and being dreamed about behind those newly opened eyes.  And yet, the truth remains that each new child is extremely fragile, totally dependent on its caretakers for everything it needs to survive.  Each new child is so much more vulnerable to disease and sickness and injury and even death than its adult counterparts.  And in those ancient times, death would claim many and in some times and places even the majority of those newborn children before they ever became adults.  In each new child is the life and death of the world.

Like many who are politically or academically minded, I tend to spend a great deal of time pointing out all the darkness that is out there in the world.  When I'm brave enough I even spend a great deal of time examining all the darkness that exists within myself.  But maybe Christmas can remind all of us to remember that we couldn't identify ANYTHING as darkness without the presence of light.  Without the light shining there in the center, fighting off the darkness, we would have no idea that darkness existed at all.

Over the past eight years it has seemed to me and to many that darkness has been on the march.  That beautiful light of human love and faith and hope can often seem like the flickering flame of a tiny candle in the middle of a thunderstorm, about to be blown out or snuffed out at any moment.  And yet it still burns.  It still shines.  And each December we are reminded that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

Merry Christmas.

Originally posted to greywolfe359 on Wed Dec 24, 2008 at 07:04 PM PST.


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