Scripture: John 1:6-10
It is 1995. I am twelve years old. All the sixth-grade classes are on a camping trip. We hike and go on the ropes course and the zip line and roast marshmallows around the campfire. At night we split up into cabins filled with wolf spiders. Sometime that first night, I wake up to use the bathroom. The latrine is a short walk through the woods. Someone has hung a flashlight from the door, so I can find it.
On the way back, I set off in the direction leading back to my cabin, but no light guides my way this time. I tell myself if I can just stay straight on the path, I will be OK. It’s not long before I realize I am no longer on the path. There are trees on all sides of me, but I have no idea which direction my cabin is in, or where the latrine is either.
I do finally make it back to my cabin that night, but I don’t remember how. What I remember is the darkness.
We are told that darkness is bad – that it is evil, ignorance, brokenness, depravity. When we are lost in the woods, trying to find our way, it may indeed feel like that. We are told that things lurk in the darkness. Yet if Christmas is a season of lights, we might say that Advent is a season of darkness. The days are already short this time of year the nights are about as long as they ever get, making us feel like it’s past our bedtime at 6:30 pm. While multicolored light displays flash outside, Clark Griswold-style, here for Advent we light candles, not to fight the darkness, but to remind ourselves in it that light is on the way.
In the past few years I’ve come to see the darkness of this time of year a little differently than I used to – rather, I’ve been challenged to understand it differently by scholars and preachers, especially people of color, who point out the ways our language of light and darkness aren’t always helpful. You’ve heard me talk about this before. Light and darkness do not have to be enemies. Maybe, instead of danger and depravity, Advent darkness is the darkness of the womb, preparing for the light to be born.
When the Christmas lights outside are a little too much, a little too festive, a little too gaudy, Advent darkness is soft and restful. You may have heard that darkness is ignorance, brokenness, depravity, but from the darkness of creation to the darkness of the cloud where God dwelled among God’s people – remember that from Exodus – to the darkness of the tomb, darkness is where something new prepares to spring forth.
It’s the darkness that allows us to see clearly the true light coming into the world.
Last week, as we began reading the prologue to John’s Gospel together, Jesus was the Word of God, who was with God and was God in the beginning. This week he is light, the true light coming into the world. Already last week we read: What came into the world was life, and the life was light for all people. It’s a poem, so John can do that, mix his metaphors and images like that. These are the very images that will guide the rest of the story John tells. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
The hardest part for me as I have tried to challenge my own assumptions about light and darkness is that the biblical writers do often – not always – picture darkness as bad and light as good. And we read a lot of those texts at this time of year: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” as the prophet Isaiah writes. If Jesus is the Light, in whom “there is no darkness at all,” then everything Jesus is – hope and truth and goodness – the dark must not be. The truth is that the imagery of light shining in the darkness speaks powerfully to us, however we might conceptualize what those words mean. So this week I found myself thinking in images, bringing together the knowledge and memories that light evokes in me, in ways that might open up new meanings in this season of light and darkness. I feel like I am trying these images on, not quite having settled on them, but I also feel like that is maybe appropriate for Advent, for pausing and reflecting.
I learned back in middle school, I think, that light is two things: both particle and wave. In some experiments and mathematical models it acts like one; sometimes it acts like the other. In recent years, I even read that scientists have been able to capture it acting as both at once. My knowledge of physics is not such that I should try to take this metaphor too far, but it is interesting to contemplate that in a season where what we are waiting for is incarnation, for the one who is fully God and fully human, for one form to become another without giving up the first.
John, however, writing in 90 CE, wouldn’t have known all that about light.
Neither, I think, does John necessarily see darkness in these verses as evil or despair. In fact, as much as he talks about light in these few verses, he only mentions darkness once. It is the necessary backdrop to the light that is coming into the world. Even when we read that the darkness did not extinguish the light – leading us to believe that it would if it could, if it were powerful enough, we could read that Greek word in another way: The darkness did not grasp it. In fact, some of you may be familiar with the old words from the King James: The darkness comprehended it not.
John chooses light, I believe, because he knows what all of us know about light in its most literal sense: it enables us to see.
Throughout John’s Gospel, faith is likened to being able to see. Later in the Gospel we will meet a man born blind who receives sight physically at the same time he is able to realize who Jesus is, while meanwhile the religious leaders who complain and accuse are, we learn, the ones who are really blind.
This is what the Light does as it comes into the world: it allows us to see – ourselves, our neighbors, creation, all as it really is, and as we really are. It’s not that the darkness is bad in itself, simply that in it we are not able to see.
We see ourselves as the center around which all things rotate; or perhaps as irreparably broken and unworthy, when what the Light does is show us the truth: that we are good, beloved, broken, redeemed. We see our neighbors as burdens, or as people to compete with, when the Light shows us that they are in fact just as loved and just as broken as us. We see creation as something at our disposal, that will always be there to use and use up, but the Light shows us that the world around us is a gift to receive and to live in balance, as part of.
These may or may not feel like things we want to know; but as the Light illumines them, we see that they are true.
As we wait for the light, what things might we need to be prepared to see differently this Advent?
The poem of John’s prologue is momentarily interrupted to introduce another man named John. He’s not the author or namesake of the Gospel. He is also, we are clearly told, not the light. Instead you might know him as John the Baptist, and his job is to witness to the light.
As I thought about it that sounded a little bit strange to me, because why does light need anyone to witness to it? It’s light, so we should be able to just see it. Then I thought I wasn’t so sure.
Have you ever looked up in the night sky at the group of stars called the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters? It’s a group of bright blueish stars just past Orion, and they are visible from nearly every place on earth, from the North Pole to the tip of South America. But the Pleiades are hard to see by just looking straight at them. You have to look a little to the side, out of the corner of your eye. I didn’t discover this by myself, I had to be told – namely by my high school astronomy teacher. The light was there, I just had to be told where to look.
I thought about how the moon doesn’t make its own light. And yet we can see it bright in the night sky. Where does it get its light? The sun. It reflects the sun’s light, and the shape of the moon we see has to do with what position the earth and moon are in in relation to the sun.
It is not the light, but it testifies to the light – because we can see the light reflected in it.
I think how so much of what I know of and about Jesus, I know indirectly. I know because someone wrote these words down in a Gospel thousands of years ago. I know because someone taught me those stories in Sunday School, and because the words of the hymns we sang in church became engraved in my mind, little by little over time. I know because I have met people who shared God’s grace and mercy and generosity with me even when I didn’t deserve it. No, I’m not just relying on what other people have said. I have experienced the beauty of the Kingdom of God for myself. What I know is that I never would have seen that light if it weren’t for others who reflected it to me, and that I never would have known what I was looking at if I didn’t have people who pointed me in that direction.
And I know that’s my job, too: to reflect that same light to others.
How have others pointed or reflected the light of God to you? How are you doing that for others, even as you wait for the light to come into the world more fully?
John writes that the true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. There’s another phrase that rang a little strange to me – true light. I suppose he meant as opposed to John the Baptist, who testified to the light but was not the light. But then I also thought about how there are other lights, and just like not all darkness is bad, not all light is true.
Maybe these are the bright lights that bid us come follow, the harsh light that serves to only heighten every perceived flaw, the light of our screens that are the object of our addiction, the headlights that blind you while presumably helping someone else see. There are other lights, but Jesus is the Light.
This is, outside, the season of lights. I admit that I do love some wonderfully tacky Christmas lights. My favorite was one our neighbor always did – it wasn’t just lights, but a whole choreographed display. You pulled up in front of their house and turned the radio to a certain channel and the lights synced with the songs that played, everything from Carol of the Bells to theme from a Charlie Brown Christmas. In fact, sometimes you’d have to fight for a space to park and watch. All the neighbors were disappointed when they decided not to do that this year.
Jon finally put some lights up on our roof yesterday. We may not be that fancy, but we wanted to be part of making our neighborhood festive and beautiful for Christmas too.
So I’m definitely not knocking Christmas lights, but since I’m thinking in images here, I wonder if it’s easy to focus on the bright lights of this season, by which I mean all the things that are here to distract us from what is true: the hopes, the promises, the attractions and temptations of a world whose flashy lights drown out the true light that can only be seen against the backdrop of darkness.
John tells us that the world didn’t recognize the light. Maybe it wasn’t the darkness that was the problem. Maybe it was all the other light, promising us truth and distraction and glory while really stealing our gaze away from the true light.
The good news is that even as we wait, God continues to be at work in the darkness; even as we wait, the light comes into the world again and again.
This season, may we open our hearts and adjust our eyes.
This season, may we not just see, but reflect what we have seen.
Resources drawn upon include
and the Facebook feed of Hebrew Bible scholar Wil Gafney, whose blog is also linked below.