The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. — John 1: 9, 10
God’s entry into the world in the Gospel of John begins with two powerful metaphors: the Word and light. The author plays with these metaphors, turning them this way and that, like a craftsman looking to join two pieces of wood with mortise and tenon rather than nails and glue.
Words, the building blocks of meaning, stack up behind us in the long histories we come from, and we pull them down to make anything out of something, a trick we’ve perfected over eons. But the original magician of words is He who creates something out of nothing with the Word alone, who morphs an idea into action and the ineffable into flesh.
The Word, according to John, becomes flesh and lives among us. The Word lives among us in grace and truth; we see his glory, the glory of God reflected somehow through the lens of a human being, a human being in whom all the fulness of God dwells. This is a mystery too deep for us, a treasure we leave buried in our field for a later time.
As Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
Does the Word mean what we want it (Him) to mean? Is it a screen upon which we project whatever image fits our mood? Or is this metaphor one so rich in variant meanings that it becomes — in the way Paul characterized himself — “all things to all people”?
We read these verses of John’s gospel, especially within this Christmas hour, as we might read the letter of a relative who, long ago, writes to a friend about her love for another. We are witness to this love through her words. We ask ourselves if ‘glory’ could be a form of love. The letter falls into its remembered folds; we follow in a reverie as the traffic of our lives passes blindly before our eyes, but we see only what we are longing for. We see it wordlessly, the Incarnation of Emmanuel, God with us, the Word, logos, become flesh.
In some readings, the Logos is that energy of life which pours through the universe and is expressed within every molecule and sinew. The resonance of that expression — glory compressed into vulnerability — creates a new reality of kenosis, an emptying out and a pouring in of God to birth.
The poet Anne Ridler places birth in the context of Christmas:
To bear new life or learn to live is an exacting joy:
The whole self must waken; you cannot predict the way
It will happen, or master the responses beforehand.
For any birth makes an inconvenient demand;
Like all holy things
It is frequently a nuisance, and its needs never end;
Freedom it brings: We should welcome release
From its long merciless rehearsal of peace.1
That the Word is life and can call forth life is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition. From the creation of the world to the healing of a leper to the awakening of faith in a person, the Word, in the form of Jesus and in the words of Jesus, has been the content of character for those who have awakened through the Spirit.
For many people, Christmas is a memory formed of light. In the deepest, darkest, engulfing days of the year, we raise our lights and are drawn to them. In our churches, our cathedrals, in our windows, and even around our public squares, the lights go up as in no other time of the year. At Christmas, we are drawn into these overlapping circles of light that show us a way forward, like stepping-stones across a river of light. We are drawn out of our darkness to them because from within our darkness we cannot not see them.
But it remains a question whether the light defines the darkness as all that is not light or if the darkness actively resists the light. Therein lies the mystery of evil and suffering.
“The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great light,” Matthew says, paraphrasing Isaiah. “They were sitting in the land of the shadow of death, and the light dawned on them.” 2 Isaiah’s wording, by contrast, is that the people were ‘walking in darkness,’ stumbling their way toward the light of dawn. Matthew’s people are no longer even walking; they’ve given up. They’re huddled in darkness in a country that lies under the shadow of death.
We may feel this way too. The darkness comes for us in different guises, but it comes for us all. It may come in a diagnosis of cancer, or the death of a loved one at the hands of a drunk driver or the pitiless drip of poverty and the daily gusts of discrimination and racism. At Christmas, for those who are alone, the darkness can seem impenetrable and its weight all the heavier for all the brightness seen in other people’s windows.
W. H. Auden concludes his famous poem, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, written soon after he converted to the Anglican faith, with these lines.
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
God can be found, suggests Auden, in the Land of Unlikeness, in the Kingdom of Anxiety, and even in the World of the Flesh. Roger Housden, whose For Lovers of God Everywhere, quotes this excerpt of Auden’s, muses that in the midst of the glitter and gifts of a commercial Xmas it may be difficult to perceive the redemption of the Incarnation, but in the “confusing and uncertain world we live in from day to day . . . in the drab period of the year that follows” Christmas, we find the light we need.
Can we sing the Lord’s song in the dark times as well as the light? We may not have the words, but the Incarnation means we can sing, even if only about the dark times.
But the dawn comes! It comes whether we are walking toward it or whether we can no longer walk or even remember what the dawn looks like. Christmas, with all its lights, reminds us that the dawn comes with power that is beyond our imagination. It is a gift from the Father of lights, the one in whom we may trust, against all odds.
A birth in the midst of death and dark forces is a tragic commonplace in our world, but in this wildly improbable tale, this Christmas story of God the Word becoming Light and Life in a manger, there is a touchstone for millions. Yet, the gospel storyteller reminds us that He who is Light shines on in the darkness and the darkness will never eclipse it — a message for all of us who find ourselves in a country shadowed by death.