Christmas in the Dark 

December 24, 2019

Helen Jacobi

Christmas Eve     Isaiah 52:7-10     John 1:1-14

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Why do we come to church in the dark tonight? Why this night and not other nights? What is it about Christmas that means we want to be here at midnight to usher in the day? Maybe coming to church in the dark seems more magical: the candlelight; the joy of being with friends and family. The sense of expectation is heightened.

 

Maybe there is something too about claiming the darkness. We heard in our gospel reading tonight:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John, the gospel writer, proclaims with confidence that light shines and cannot be overcome.

 

I don’t think I was ever really afraid of the dark as a child, but lots of children are. We are cautious even as adults of walking alone in the dark.

We have security lights and street lights to help us feel secure. In apartment buildings and hotels the lights in the corridors never go out.

In the city the lights never go out. If you want to see some stars you need to get far away from the lights of the city.

 

Tonight we embrace the dark. We have lit the Christ candle on the Advent wreath, where we have been lighting one candle a week in a countdown to Christmas. Each of the purple candles represents a week of Advent and each candle has a meaning attached to it. The first one is for hope, the second for peace, the third for joy, and the fourth for love. Advent themes that lead us into Christmas. The candles bring light and the darkness does not overcome them. Hope, peace, joy and love are not overcome by the darkness.

 

In Aotearoa 2019 was a year when we felt like we could perhaps be overcome by darkness. The Christchurch Mosque shootings; the measles epidemic which we exported to Samoa; the Whakaari White Island eruptions. And that is without the world events of unstable politics and of course climate change.

 

Isaiah promised that God would comfort God’s people (52:9) – the people who had been in exile and were returning to their homeland. John promises light in the darkness.

 

And we saw plenty of light this year – the way communities responded and came together; the way our leaders were able to express the mood of the nation. But if you are someone who lost a loved one in Chch or if you are sitting at the bedside of a burns victim, if you are a doctor or nurse treating that burns patient; the darkness will be feeling pretty overwhelming right now. Simply turning the lights up; more street lights, more security lighting, more candles, does not bring about change.

What we need is a different kind of light.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 

Thousands of years before John wrote these words, storytellers passing down the story of creation from the memories of their foremothers and forefathers, had said the same thing. “In the beginning God said “let there be light” and there was light. And God saw the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” (Gen 1:4-5). Many creation stories from the cultures of the world speak of the coming of light as essential to the beginning of life. Like our own story of Rangi and Papatuanuku, the sky and the earth must separate to allow light in and to bring forth life.

 

John’s poem or hymn of the coming of the Word begins in the same place: with light. The light is literally light that shines, like a candle or the sun.

The word “phos” in Greek can also mean understanding, enlightenment or truth. Biblical writers always use words with multiple meanings to encourage us to peel off the layers and wander about in their writing.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Understanding shines in places of ignorance, and the darkness has not seized it.

So tonight in the dark we seek light and we seek understanding, or wisdom.

And this light is not just a light as bright as the sun to blind us and banish the darkness. Instead it lives alongside the darkness – like night and day, which were both declared good.

 

Barbara Brown Taylor, an American writer, has a book called Learning to Walk in the Dark and in it she recounts being taken to a cave by a friend so she could experience real darkness. In one cave before turning her headlamp off she spots a sparkly stone full of light and keeps it as a souvenir. When she gets home and takes it out of her bag it looks like a piece of gravel. [1] She says “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.” [2]

 

We don’t want life to be hard, we don’t want suffering for ourselves or others but we know too that from “dark” times in our lives can come learning and strength and hope. To bring about change in amongst the darkness of the white supremacy ideology which led to the Christchurch massacre requires spending time acknowledging that the ideology exists.

It requires us to spend time in the darkness so we can find out how peoples and governments can work together to eradicate this evil and the racism which is part of the ideology.

 

Moslem leaders are telling us that hatred is rising not falling.

We can’t magically fix these problems even on this the most magical of nights. Rather with the strength of the light within, we can together listen and work and bring about change. And with the strength of the light within we can bring the comfort Isaiah promised to those in grief or physical pain.

 

Jesus’ journey into our world began in the same way as each of us; in the darkness of the womb. There is an early church tradition that Jesus was born in a cave – which is entirely possible if the house the family stayed in was built against a hill and so the section for the animals was a cave.

He was born into the quietness and darkness of a humble home with a family and animals around. [3]

His life journey ended in the darkness of a tomb, also a cave.

Then light broke into the darkness, the light of new life, or resurrection.

 

And so we gather tonight in the dark, the dark of a womb, 

the dark of a cave, the dark of the night, the dark of creation waiting for first light.

 

This darkness is good as God created it, and safe.

We know there is much in the world that is not safe, much in the world that is sad and wrong and evil.

 

And so we come this night to seek the light,

the light that was created at the beginning of time;

and the light that was born that first Christmas night

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

 

 

[1] Chapter 6 “Entering the Stone” Learning to Walk in the Dark 2014 Harper Collins

 

[2] Ibid p 5

 

[3] Kenneth Bailey Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes 2008 SPCK chapter 1

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