Understanding, darkness, and light
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
That’s Good News, right?
Christmas is our yearly reminder that the light still shines and the darkness does not overcome it.
And here in the darkness of early winter. In the dark uncertainty of our world; with fear roaming unchecked; and hope in short supply…hearing again that the light, the true light, the light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world…that’s good news. Isn’t it?
Wait. Was coming? Is coming? Did it already come but is now guttering out? Did it show up 2000 years ago and then just disappear? Or is it still to come? Where is it now? I think is a fair question.
I wonder about that, but that’s not what’s really troubling me this year. Right now, it’s that verb “overcome.” “And the darkness did not overcome it.”
It is bothering me not because the darkness does seem to be overcoming the light right now…but because it’s the wrong metaphor. To overcome something is to what? to defeat it; to conquer it, to trounce, trash, rout or vanquish it. And as relieved as we might be that darkness does not…cannot not…ultimately defeat, or overwhelm or triumph over the light, it’s still a dangerous metaphor because it frames the whole relationship as purely adversarial. It makes it seem as though the whole point is that one is supposed to defeat—dominate—the other. It separates the world into winners and losers, which creates walled compounds of filter-bubbled animosity pitting one side against the other…which is not good news…and not the Gospel…and it’s not the way the light works. Overcoming is not what the light is about. Victory is not the same as reconciliation…or salvation…or liberation; which is the purpose of Christ coming among us…of God being with us…of God living and dying as one of us so as to reconcile us and all of creation to God. Darkness might seek power as a means of attaining victory at any cost, but the light shines not to defeat, but to illumine. Not to trounce, but to transform. It’s a significant difference, and one that’s hard to understand.
The first chapter of John’s account of the Divine Light of Christ coming into the world…indeed, John’s whole account of Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection, has perplexed churchgoers and scholars alike for generations. It is not like Luke’s story of shepherds and angels, and babies in mangers…John’s is a mystical text, a text full of riddles and paradoxes, it is difficult to understand.
Which interestingly, is an alternate, yet completely legitimate translation of “overcome.” The original Greek word means: to seize tightly, to overtake, or to comprehend. So this line is sometimes translated as: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not understand it” cannot grasp it, cannot comprehend it. The darkness neither recognizes nor understands what it is that the light offers…salvation…liberation.
And that’s something we all struggle with. It’s not us and them…the children of the light vs the children of the dark…it’s the darkness in all of us…that has trouble understanding…it is the fears which we harbor, that prevents us from comprehending…it is the uncertainty and the worry that blinds us…the animosity towards others…the desire to win at any cost…that is what diminishes the light.
We all struggle with this, when we see the horrors taking place in Aleppo and feel the sick bile of helpless rage well up in us as we wonder how anyone could allow this. When we see videos of people shouting vile racist things and wonder why isn’t anyone stopping this? Or even more troubling, would I step in to stop it? When we feel the inky black claw of dread wrap around our heart at the latest terrorist atrocity, it’s easy to want some bright ball of fiery light to blaze in and not simply dispel, but utterly destroy the darkness. But that doesn’t seem to be how the light works…when we want God to come in power and great glory; God comes as the most helpless of creatures—a human infant. When we demand a king who will utterly destroy the evil empires of the world, we get the same helpless creature, now a naked, vulnerable man nailed to a cross. When we appeal for assurances of the time and place when Jesus will return and everything will be put right; we are told tend the sick, to free the oppressed, to live in solidarity with the poor, and the marginalized, to be vulnerable…to take up our crosses, give up our privilege and our possessions. Oh and we get a promise, that Jesus will be with us always, even to the end of the age.
We are gathered here tonight, to celebrate the light that continually comes into the world…this incomprehensible light transformed into human flesh. And if you wonder where the light is now…it’s still here…in us. Jesus reminds us in the other Gospel we heard tonight, that “you are the light of the world.” That’s where the light is…It’s in us. The light, the true light which has come into the world, says that we are light of the world. “And that we must shed light among our fellow people, so that they may see the good you do, and give glory to God in heaven.”
The light that shines in the darkness…even in the darkness of your own fear-filled heart…the light that shines from a stable in Bethlehem, that light is in you. That light is made brighter by coming together in community. It is made more penetrating by reaching out to those in need. It is made more luminous by standing up for justice. It is made more radiant by speaking out against systemic evils of greed, racism, sexism, and so many others…It grows and glows more brightly through our daily actions of sacrifice, and commitment, and compassion.
Tend the light that is within you. Seek the light that is in others. Magnify the light—and gain strength and sustenance for yourself—through community. Let the light—the true light that proclaims release to the captives, good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind—let that so shine that all may see it and be drawn to it.