“Yet in the dark street shineth is everlasting light,
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
These are powerful words taken from the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Why is “light” such a strong theme in our Christmas carols?
Well if you go to Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, you are given a straight account of the events surrounding Jesus’s birth –the bare facts if you like. John’s Gospel doesn’t include a birth narrative. Instead John reflects on what happened in Bethlehem and tells us.
“The Word (a title for Jesus) gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”
Jesus is portrayed as the Light of the World bringing light and life to a dark world. Why do we see this sharp contrast between light and darkness?
- Why are we afraid of the dark?
I asked this question at one of our Carol Services this year. Or more specifically I asked how we would feel if there was a power cut and all the lights went out so there was pitch blackness. People responded that they might be frightened and so I asked “Why?” The responses began to come back.
“I’d be afraid that I would bump into things and hurt myself.”
“I’d be afraid that the lights were never going to come back on.”
“I’d be afraid that someone might use the darkness to harm me.”
“I’d be afraid that the bogie man would come.”
We associate darkness with fear because we are afraid of the harm that we might cause to ourselves and the harm that others might cause us. Earlier in the same service someone had told their life story and started with the question “Have you ever felt that your life was in darkness.” It is a great metaphor for the fear we can hold onto.
- There’s the fear that others will come and harm us.
Some of us will have experienced harm and even abuse from others, physical, emotional, spiritual or sexual abuse. If this is the case then fear means the fear that the person will never stop, that they will always have some control over us. Even if we have physically escaped their grip, there’s the fear that they might come back and the fear that they’ll always have some emotional control through our nightmares. Then there’s the fear that we won’t ever be able to trust anyone, the fear that others may act in the same way towards us.
- There’s the fear that we will harm ourselves
Some of us will be very aware of the destructive tendencies that we have to ourselves: anorexia, self-harm, drug abuse. These may well be ways in which we’ve tried to take control. These become ways of saying that I am in charge. They may also have started out as cried for help, to get attention. But the very way that I try to take control ends up controlling me. Habits form. I can see the destruction they cause but I cannot stop. Once again I fear that the light is never coming on again.
- Darkness and Sin
Let’s use two Bible words to describe these things. We are talking about evil and sin. We may not like to use those words, they seem harsh. Maybe we can talk about those who cause harm to others as doing evil, as sinning but it does not seem compassionate to describe the person who is in that desperate cycle as sinning.
However, remember what we have said already, that so often what we try to do is to take control, to take charge, to be masters of our own lives. The bible says that this is the root problem. Sin, evil and suffering started with the first humans attempting to take control. They decided that they would decide right and wrong. They chose not to trust God. The root issue is that I want to be in control rather than trusting God.
This does not exclude deep compassion when we those deep wounds whether self-inflicted or caused by another. What we are describing is all the pain and hurt of a messy world, all the pain and hurt of a messy dark world. This world was never meant to be dark, the lights have been turned off and it is we who turned them off.
Jesus Brings Light
I asked the congregation how they would feel when the lights came on again. “Relief” was the answer. John tells us that Jesus is the one who shows up and brings light.
Light brings truth
The first thing that happens when the light goes on is that we get to see the real state of affairs. Light exposes the truth. This can be quite painful as the reality of the mess, deceit and sin in our own lives is shown up. God’s Word shows us what we really are like. We see the true horror of our sin and why we need Jesus to intervene.
Light brings life
John draws these two words together, light and life. Charles Welsey draws on this language in his carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”
“Light and life too all he brings
Risen with healing in his wings.”
Light is associated with healing (think about modern laser treatment for eye surgery). Wesley correctly captures the point that Jesus is the one who heals broken, hurting lives. He does this by dealing with the root problem. Through the Cross, Jesus brings forgiveness for our sin.
Light brings hope and that’s exactly what Jesus does
“The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.”
We do not have to stay in the darkness. We can find life, healing, truth, hope, forgiveness in the light of Christ.