Several days ago, our parish administrator Karen Blissit bulldogged Entergy to come out and replace our parking lights, so we’d be able to see the way from our cars to the church tonight. Last weekend, as I sat enjoying “Guys and Dolls” at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, I turned on my smartphone’s glowing viewscreen in order to see my playbill in the darkened theatre. Yesterday evening, when I let the dogs out one last time before bed, I appreciated the halogen motion light in our backyard that prevented me from stumbling on icy concrete. The point is this: Never in my life—not for one moment—must I walk in darkness. Neither must you.
Consider that. Our access to light is so consistent and pervasive that we take it for granted above all else. For us, at midnight just as at noon, the light is never farther away than the flip of a switch. Not so long ago, it was not so. As recently the 1600s, a full century after Henry VIII broke with Rome to establish the grand church tradition we call Anglicanism, no city on the planet was illuminated by night.[i] Forget those movie portrayals of medieval people walking down reliably torch-lit alleyways. Such images have no basis in fact. Long after the New World had been discovered and warfare was wrought with gunpowder, when the sun went down, the world was enshrouded in darkness. Absolute darkness. Hand-disappearing-in-front-of-your-face darkness. In cosmopolitan London just as in deepest Africa.
London finally created a system of nighttime illumination in the 1600s, but it wasn’t until after the birth of this country in the late 1700s that gas lighting was invented, providing consistent and systematic light in the darkness. And it wasn’t until around 1800 that the average Western European family could afford as a regular staple a stock of candles.
What I’m saying to you is this: Our experience of the world is incredibly new. We are able to fend off the night in ways that people as recently as two hundred years ago simply could not. Our eyes no longer widen in wonder when the candle’s flame casts away shadows. We do not respond the way a young Robert Louis Stevenson did when his grandmother pulled him away from the window as he watched the lamplighter make his way down his London street lighting the gas lamps at murky dusk. “What are you doing?” asked the grandmother. And with bated breath the future poet replied, “I’m watching a man punch holes in the darkness.”
Once Jill and I went on a camping excursion to a friend’s hunting cabin. To call it that is a stretch. It was a squat, square, concrete block enclosure with no windows. Once inside, when the lights were turned out, the darkness was absolute. Unexpectedly, I was claustrophobic. It was the rare experience that the darkness could reach out and smother me. That is what darkness was—regularly—for our ancestors: fearsome and inescapable.
Even more so during this time of year. The birth of Christ falls during the week of the winter solstice, when the day is shortest and the night encroaches most completely. In other words, in the middle of the night, on the longest night of the year, in the time of deepest darkness, Jesus is born.[ii]
Forget soft and glowing drawings of doe-eyed lambs nuzzling Mary through a gentle labor. For one lying supine on the dirt about to give birth among caravan animals, the snorts and shuffles of large hoofed feet crowding around in the darkness would’ve added anxiety to an already fearful experience.
Of course, for the Holy Family as for so many others, the darkness was existential just as it was literal. The Jews of Palestine were an occupied people, kept under the boot of both a distant Roman Emperor and his local puppet Herod. Don’t forget, Joseph was forced to travel in the middle of winter with a very pregnant wife to satisfy the caprice of Caesar Augustus. Joseph was not his own man.
And for the shepherds, the encroaching darkness was absolute. Shepherds and their sheep (which were practically blind even in daylight) regularly fell prey to wolves and even lions leaping from the darkness.
It is in this context that the baby enters the world. It is into this darkness that God takes on our humanity and arrives among us. It is here and now that the blackened sky parts over the shepherds in the field and the heavenly chorus erupts in song. That darkness, which every other night in human history had held sway, flees in their presence. The shepherds look on in utter wonder. The prowling creatures of the night retreat, the shepherds’ fear melts, and they understand that with the birth of this child everything is made different. After all, what power can the night hold over the One who said in the beginning, “Let there be light”? When the angels of the Lord say, “Peace on earth among those whom God favors,” the effect is that of Stevenson’s lamplighter punching holes in the darkness.
In our outward lives, so long as the trusty smartphone is at hand, there is always at least a dim glow available. We no longer wonder at the presence of light. But existentially, we know what darkness is. As Marcus Borg says, “We easily get lost in the dark; we stumble around and cannot see our way. In the dark, we are often afraid. We do not know what might be going on: danger may lurk, spirits may roam, evil may be afoot.”[iii]
There are instances when the caprice of others—or of life itself—moves us where we do not want or need to go. There are times when heavy hooves push us about, knocking us to and fro and keeping us off balance. There are nights when we’re barely able to keep the prowling creatures at bay.
But to us, too, Christ is born this night! No matter how thick the darkness, a light has entered the world that scatters all shadows. We’ve come back round to where we began: Truly, we need never walk in darkness! As Brennan Manning says with wonder like the shepherds, “The world is [now] charged with grace! While sin and war, disease and death are terribly real, God’s loving presence and power in our midst are even more real.”[iv]
With the birth of this child, everything is made different. We are made different, as people visited by the angels with the promise of God’s peace, as people commissioned like the shepherds to proclaim and share that peace.
What does it look like to live by the wonder of this light? When we travel into the meanest places and meet those who suffer want, do we dismiss them, or do we see in them the Holy Family and in their children the Christ child? When we see those who wander in their own darkness, do we pass them by, or do we step forward as with a shepherd’s staff to fend of the prowling beasts and shepherd the blind to safety? When we feel the night falling upon us, do we cower, or do we look to the brightness of the Christ light and gravitate to its warmth?
When we leave this place, let us do so as if we’re seeing the city illuminated by night for the first time. Let us do so with grins on our faces and light in our eyes, embracing those we meet, who may be stumbling around in murky dusk, and saying, “I have seen the child who punches holes in the darkness. Christ is born. Rejoice! Rejoice!”
[i] This and other details about the development of lighting come from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, chapter seven.
[ii] I owe this turn of phrase to Borg and Crossan, pg. 172.
[iii] Ibid, 173.
[iv] Manning, Brennan. The Ragamuffin Gospel, 99.