Light in Darkness

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.

Who are we waiting for?

Today’s Gospel passage begins, “When John the Baptist heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to Jesus, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’”  Much follows, and we’ll talk about that, but I’m intrigued by this first line.  When the action opens, John the Baptist is floundering and festering in King Herod’s prison.  I’ve seen similar first-century cells in Jerusalem.  They are pits in the ground with high walls and no windows.  It is from captivity in such a dank cell that John calls his own disciples to him and then sends them out with a message for Jesus. 

John the Baptist has known Jesus for years.  Luke’s Gospel tells us that John and Jesus are kin to one another,[i] and all the Gospels recount how, before Jesus began his own ministry, Jesus came to John and was baptized in the River Jordan.[ii]  But since that baptism, the Gospels mention no further contact between John and Jesus.  Much time—months if not years—has passed since their meeting at the Jordan.  Why does John reach out to Jesus now?  What does John want?  What is his hope?

Let’s fast forward a few chapters to Matthew 14.  If we recall that gruesome passage, then perhaps retrospectively we can interpret John’s motivation in chapter 11.  Matthew 14 presents one of the most well-known and oft-depicted scenes in art and opera.  It depicts a lurid dinner party in which King Herod Antipas lusts after his step-daughter Salome.  In order to entice Salome to dance for him, Herod promises her anything her heart desires, and what her heart desires (at the prodding of her mother) is the head of John the Baptist.  Herod complies with Salome’s wish.  And so, by the caprice of a pathological and depraved family, Herod’s lackeys are sent to the dungeon, where they separate John’s head from his body and bring it back to the dinner table on a platter. 

Now rewind to chapter 11, which we read today.  John has already been in Herod’s custody for a long time.  Do you think the mercurial Herod who demands John’s head on a whim in chapter 14 was any less terrorizing during the interim between John’s arrest and that awful dinner party?  Undoubtedly, John has been traumatized while in prison, psychologically if not physically.  From John’s own experience, and from what he almost certainly has witnessed among his fellow prisoners, he knows that he is in mortal peril.  Imagine the constant anxiety of John the Baptist in the clutches of such an unstable tyrant.

All that is to say, I do not believe that the John the Baptist we meet at the beginning of Matthew 11 calmly summons his disciples and sends them to Jesus with a message curious about Jesus’ cosmic purpose.  Rather, John is a desperate man frantically begging to know if Jesus is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for.  And who, exactly, is that long-awaited Messiah?  Who is the Savior of common expectation among Jews in John’s day?  It is King David reborn, a champion who will rise up to free the Jewish people, and who more immediately (and to put a fine point on it) John the Baptist hopes will come and free John from Herod’s violent insanity.  Who is John expecting in Jesus?  Someone who will break him the heck out of there.

We can’t blame John.  After all, what kind of Savior do we want and hope for?  Who are we waiting on?  In our desperation, whatever our circumstances may be, we also seek a Jesus who will, in an instant, charge in and right our lives. When we are in peril, we want the hurting, the grief, the anxiety, the anger to stop, and quickly, and so we wait for, or go searching for, a Jesus who will come, riding on a charger, and scatter our foes.  We want a Savior who will protect us from the world’s insanity, break our chains, free us.  It’s the natural, and perhaps unavoidable, human thing to want.

We want a Savior who will charge in and right our lives.

I imagine John the Baptist waiting impatiently in his dank cell, straining his ears to hear the clarion call of the cavalry at the head of which he hopes Jesus will charge.  I wonder how, when John’s disciples return without Jesus, John receives Jesus’ reply.  Is it a disappointment to John?  It is undoubtedly a surprise.

Jesus doesn’t claim to be King David reincarnate.  He straps on no sword.  He musters no physical army.  Jesus doesn’t promise to force the world aright.  Jesus says and shows, rather, that salvation doesn’t work that way.  Jesus says to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus’ saving work is wrought through the patient, laborious, committed one-on-one interaction with grace.  And, Jesus reveals to John’s disciples as they undoubtedly see Jesus’ disciples doing that same work, that our own salvation happens when we participate in that labor alongside Jesus.

Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist will not give John hope that Jesus is coming to break him out of his physical cell, but it will transform John’s understanding of who the Messiah is and what his saving work is about.  And it will recall to John the role he—John—has already played in that work—reminding him that he is no reed bending in the wind—a reminder that will gird John’s strength and steel John’s resolve for what he will eventually face at the hands of Herod and Salome.

What does Jesus’ reply to John mean for us?  Like John, we want and hope for a Savior who will free us from our bonds (whatever they may be), but Jesus reminds us that true freedom comes when we participate with Jesus in his saving work to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, feed the hungry, and bring good news to the poor.   When we do this, no matter our physical circumstances, the walls of our own metaphoric prisons melt away.

That’s the great paradox of the Gospel.  Were Jesus King David reborn, the powerful, worldly champion that John the Baptist thought he wanted (and that many Christians consciously or subconsciously still want today), John might have burst out of Herod’s prison and wreaked havoc on his captors, but he’d not have been redeemed.  He’d merely have joined an endless procession of violence and retribution of one over another.  Instead, Jesus reveals to John that his participation in Jesus’ work to usher in the kingdom of God is salvation.

More wondrous still, Jesus says today that each one of us, even the least of us, is even greater than John the Baptist!  No matter what our circumstances in this world may suggest to us or to others; no matter what prisons—literal or metaphoric—may hem us in; no matter who may threaten or assault us; we will find salvation whenever we join our heart, souls, and lives to Jesus’ saving work.  When we give sight to the blind, we find our eyes opened.  When we feed the hungry, our souls are satisfied; when offer words of grace to others in need, the gates locked around our hearts are thrown open, and we are free.  When we join our labor of love to Jesus’ own, we discover with wonder that the prison walls that have surrounded us crumble to the ground, and the bright light of God shines down upon us.

On this Third Sunday of Advent—Gaudete Sunday, in which we are to rejoice—we also see that this is the way to wait expectantly on Jesus: Not to dwell on our own yawning needs, as real as they are, but to turn outward, to the needs of the world round about us, to do the work of Jesus as we await Jesus’ return.  This is how we prepare for Jesus’ coming.  This is how we break free from our prisons.  This is how we wait.

[i] Luke 1:36. The precise relationship is not specified, though Christian tradition says John and Jesus were cousins through their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary.

[ii] Matthew 3:13-17 and parallels.