“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The powerful dichotomy of light versus darkness recurs throughout scripture, but accrues particular meaning at this time of year, when we are in the depths of winter – in these days that grow dark too soon, when we are surrounded by the warm yellow light of candles and that distinctly blue and garish public Christmas light.
But what happens when the darkness is not only a powerful spiritual metaphor, but also communicates how we feel in the depths of our hearts and minds? When at the carol service everyone around you is singing: “Glory!”, “Hosanna!”, “Joyful and triumphant!”, and those words feel dead in your mouth.
What does it mean to do Christmas when the realities of our lives don’t seem to match the Christmas songs and it feels like darkness very much has not been overcome?
One of my very favourite Christmas carols is O come, O come, Emmanuel, because it doesn’t avoid the dark; it names the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows and Israel mourning in lonely exile. It acknowledges that fact that while Jesus brings hope, redemption and ransom, the current space is one of waiting. Yes, there are glimpses of the kingdom breaking through, and yes ultimately He cannot be overcome, but we are not there yet. So let’s not deny the darkness, but recognise and name it. It might look like deep despair at the brokenness of the world or a very personal sadness or loss, it might look like depression or anxiety; it could be easy to pin down or it might not have a clear source.
God moves in the dark too: Jacob wrestled the angel, manna fell in the night time and God appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai in a dense, dark cloud. Barbara Brown Taylor writes in Learning to Walk in the Dark, that “to be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.”
I think sometimes we need the grief, sadness and disruption of life, in order to recognise the reality of sin and brokenness, and to fully appreciate the concepts of hope, joy and peace. And we’re not left to deal with all the darkness on our own; somehow God moves and heals in the hard and uncertain places as well as the light ones. Here can be found holy possibility and healing and new kinds of understanding too; I see this in my own life and in the lives of those I love.
So how are we meant to respond when others are going through periods of darkness? When Job is going through the absolute worst time, there isn’t an accessible apologetic answer or explanation for why suffering exists. But we do learn from suffering, how we respond to the hard stuff and the darkness. It’s not about offering theological platitudes like “everything happens for a reason” or pointing to someone’s sin or lack of faith; it’s about being present, being a good friend and being able to sit in the sadness. It means selective vulnerability with those we love, existing within community and messy, lamenting prayers that ask God: “Why?”
And it means pointing each other to hope and reminding each other of God’s promises.
So, in this final week of Advent, the week that symbolises joy, let’s be good at engaging with the dark. Let’s have a posture towards Christmas that recognises and engages with the light, the dark and everything in between.
Let’s not assume Christmas is easy or straightforward for everyone. Let’s make space for tears and messiness and lament in our churches and homes. And let’s never stop reminding each other of the joy and redemption of God coming down to be with us in our mess.