The Light Coming Into the World

Photo: David Beatz, Unsplash

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.

  1. Ridler, Anne. “Christmas and the Common Birth.”
  2. Mt. 4:16, The Four Gospels, Richmond Lattimore, translator.

A Scandal We Can Live For

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He was in the form of God, but did not think to seize on the right to be equal to God . . . being born in the likeness of a human being; and being found in the guise of a human being, he humiliated himself and was obedient to the death, death on the cross. Philippians 2:7-8, Richmond Lattimore, translator

Every life that begins points forward to a death, a truth we mortals carry like a stone in our shoe.

Does every father grasped in the clenching fear and joyous awe of the birthing hour cast his mind forward to the death of his son? Perhaps Joseph did, caught up in a mystery whose dimensions seemed to waver in and out of focus with his young wife’s hoarse cries. There is no mention of a midwife in the Gospel nativity stories. Does Joseph deliver the child himself?

Questions like these are how we fumble our way to the heart of the nativity story. We ask them because we want to time-travel back, to be there in that moment to try to grasp how—no, why?—an infinite God plunges deep into our world in order to surface as an infant, an infant for whom the mere rumor of existence is enough to trigger a massacre.

From a reasonable perspective, it would be hard to find a less auspicious beginning for a clandestine King of kings and Lord of lords: a baby born into poverty under one of the most corrupt governments of an empire notable not only for its reach but also for its cruelty. From a revolutionary standpoint, chances for success in overthrowing the Empire hover around zero. I don’t think we can exaggerate how awful the odds are here.

Imagine the storyline pitched by the producers of a film company to the head of a major studio:

What kind of film is this?

It’s kind of an action-adventure, but with a strong underdog angle.

Let’s hear it.

Okay, a baby is born under mysterious circumstances to a poverty-stricken couple who have to flee to another country to avoid a massacre of all children under two by a corrupt and paranoid tyrant.

I see.

And the kid survives and grows up to form a roving band of —

Guerrilla fighters?

No. They go around this country healing people and teaching them about loving their enemies and turning the other cheek.

(silence)

And finally, he’s captured, all his friends desert him, and he’s killed.

Wait. He’s got no superpowers?

No.

No last-minute rescue mission?

No.

Too depressing. What’s the point?

Well, he comes back to life.

Like what, a zombie? That could work—

No, no zombies. He comes back to life and then after awhile he disappears.

And that’s it? Are you kidding me?

Well, he returns later and sorts everything out.

When?

When what?

When does he return?

Nobody knows, it’s just that—

Get outta my office.

We have an advantage over Joseph—we know that the end of his son’s story is the beginning of an even greater story. We know the end of our story, too, the one we share with our human community. What we cannot fathom is the beginning of this baby’s story.

The nativity scenes we witness in paintings are as peaceful and placid a scene as one could imagine. The baby Jesus coos and waves his little fists. Mary is dressed in robes of cerulean and white and gazes benignly on her infant son. The magi are there, having arrived not a moment too soon, but months after they set out from their city. In some of the paintings there are shepherds kneeling by the manger. They’ve already seen angels that night, a heavenly host of them, their burning towering forms lighting up the hills for miles around. Naturally, the shepherds are terrified, but it’s a terror that becomes raw energy; they race down off the hills and into the town. (How do they know where to go?) But they find the place and slip inside, some to kneel, some to stand in the shadows, panting and glancing at one another with wondering eyes.

***

The Coming

And God held in his hand

A small globe. Look, he said.

The son looked. Far off,

As through water, he saw

A scorched land of fierce

Colour. The light burned

There; crusted buildings

Cast their shadows; a bright

Serpent, a river

Uncoiled itself, radiant

With slime.

On a bare

Hill a bare tree saddened

The sky. Many people

Held out their thin arms

To it, as though waiting

For a vanished April

To return to its crossed

Boughs. The son watched

Them. Let me go there, he said.

— R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems

***

God must now think from behind the eyes of a human being. Those considerable limitations are what remains to work with. No superpowers here, just the steady consistency of vulnerability and love. Will that be enough?

If this really was the kairos, the right time for this intervention in Earth-history, we wouldn’t have seen it had we been there. Even if we had been in Jesus’ roving band of disciples, we couldn’t have understood it. As long as power meant violence to take down the enemy none of this would have made sense. And if we’re honest it still doesn’t make sense. The reason we accept it, this Incarnation, this embodiment of God in human flesh, is that we no longer see it as the skandalon, the scandal it really is. What kind of god would have the patience, not to mention the love, to work with creatures who resolutely kill everyone who offers them hope?

“The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation,” said C. S. Lewis in The Joyful Christian. “They say God became Man. . . Every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation.”

This is where it begins for us. It doesn’t really matter if we can’t figure out the biological status of a virgin birth or even if parthenos means a “young girl of marriageable age” versus a virgin who has never had sex. What matters is that we accept this gift of God become human, scandal and all.

Advent for me means the coming of the Christ-child into this world, through the back door of the world, under the silent stars of the world, for the world. It always catches me off-guard, which is good, because we should always be surprised at Advent. Surprised that the kingdom begins in such a quiet way; surprised that at least once during the year we can say in all honesty, that we were blind, but now we see; surprised that silence carries a deeper truth than we could think of on our own.

After surprise comes wonder, since Christ comes to us in every breath we take, every person we meet, in the dust on the road to Emmaus, in the waves we sink into, in the beauty of communion with one another. All of these are Advent moments; they give us a way to live inside the saying, ‘Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the age.’

Photo: Ruben Bagues, Unsplash.com