Grace Presbyterian Church
January 2, 2022, Christmas 2C
The Light Shines
I’ve been wondering a lot this season of Advent and Christmas about the particular thing we, and who knows how many other churches, do on Christmas Eve. You know the bit. Whatever else is planned for the service is done, then the organist or pianist starts playing “Silent Night,” candle-lighters get their flame from some main source, and candles are then lit up all over the congregation. Finally, the sanctuary’s lights are dimmed or turned off altogether.
I had begun to wonder just how this practice became quite so widespread. Churches have dramatically different services on Christmas Eve. Some are quite large and ceremonial; some are full of pageants and children provoking “ooh”s and “aww”s from the congregation; some are quieter and simpler. Nonetheless, somehow all of these different varieties of service seem to culminate with this same candle ritual. I started to wonder if it was mandated by some obscure provision in our denomination’s Book of Order.
I have no explanation, but perhaps the ritual connects, subliminally or subconsciously even, to what we read in John’s gospel today, particularly in verses 4 and 5.
There are a lot of different images that flash by in this reading – Word, life, word became flesh, and maybe most tellingly light, particularly light not being overcome by darkness. Maybe there’s something in that, as to why those candles in the dark are so affecting and compulsory.
Perhaps it’s also not an accident that light plays a prominent part of the stories around the Nativity in our gospels. Remembering that Mark includes nothing about the birth of Jesus, we see in Luke’s gospel how, when the angels appeared to the shepherds in the field, “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” In Matthew’s gospel, the event marked under the name Epiphany (it’s on the liturgical calendar this Thursday and is summarized by the last four stanzas of that first hymn we sang this morning) is provoked largely by the appearance of an unusually bright star that catches the attention of Magi located in Persia, most likely, who take to the desert to follow that star to what it portends. Light, particularly light not being overcome by darkness, can provoke the strongest responses from people.
It’s all appropriate for one for whom John says “what has come into being in him was life, and that life was the light of all people,” The Word, the one who was “in the beginning,” is also Light, Light that cannot be put out by any darkness.
In fact, one could argue that darkness only accentuates the light. That candle-lighting ritual on Christmas Eve would not have quite the same effect without the lights of the sanctuary being dimmed, would it? While the rest of the room might seem overwhelmed with darkness, the light of those candles only stands out all the more.
And isn’t that how it is? In the bleakest and most uncertain times, those moments of light that do come – the brightness of a smile, the sound of a particular note or chord of music, the smell of freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies – stand out all the more brightly against that seeming all-pervasive darkness.
John’s poetic prologue stands out in the Advent and Christmas cycle, particularly against narratives of long, arduous journeys taken by Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, or the Magi to find the king they sought. It resonates also with the human experience of light and darkness – it’s hard to move around in total darkness, for example, and malevolent actors are more able to conceal their deeds in darkness. At the same time, darkness is sometimes a necessity. To borrow a line from the song “The Gift,” by singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, “May your life be filled with light/except for when you’re trying to sleep.” In the scheme of nature, darkness has its place. Anything from movies in theatres to fireworks displays to candle lightings on Christmas Eve gains power from darkness.
And yet, for all the power of these images of Word and Light, we humans have a long and repulsive history of turning, for example, that image of light against darkness into an excuse to be cruel to other human beings. When the light-vs-darkness image is surreptitiously inserted into discussion of whiteness and blackness, when it becomes an excuse to equate “black” with “darkness” and therefore with evil or corruption or whatever we want to claim to oppose, we are behaving, ironically, in the manner of the very “darkness” we claim to hate. And if you think that metaphor hasn’t been used that very way many, many times in history (the justification of enslavement in Western European and US history, for example), think again.
Let’s not twist this image, shall we? Let us understand what Light is here – that which illuminates, shows us the way forward, shows us the Word, the one who “gave power to become children of God” to those who believed. Can we do this, can we hear this passage in its elaborate and elegant wholeness, testifying to “the Word became flesh,” the one who bestows “grace upon grace”? Can we see Light for what it is without turning darkness into what it is not?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless indicated otherwise): #147, The First Nowell; #—, In the Beginning was the Word, #134, Joy to the World