Let There Be Light

By Julia Gatta

With the story of Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem still fresh in our minds, the Church today pulls back the curtains behind the intimate scene in the manger to reveal the dizzying background of that event: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The majestic words of the Prologue to the Gospel of John have long figured in the liturgical celebration of Christmas as the Gospel read either on Christmas Day or now, on the Sunday immediately following.

It offers a perspective we sorely need; it furnishes us with the long — indeed the longest imaginable — point of view. Deliberately echoing the opening words of the Book of Genesis — “In the beginning” — St. John signals to us that he too has a creation story to tell. Only his story will relate a new creation as the Word of God, who was with God and actually is God, enters the world, bringing light and making all things new.

God once again speaks his Word — “Let there be light” — and this time light personified appears in the darkened landscape of the world. The Word is made flesh, a baby; and those who come to believe in this Word are also made children once again: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” The eternal Word becomes a human child; and human beings become children of God, partakers, as the Epistle of Peter puts it, in the divine nature. A new creation indeed.

The Prologue to St. John encompasses what has come to be known in Tradition as the “three births” of the Word, all celebrated at Christmas. First there is the eternal generation of the Word, from before time and forever. “Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be, he is Alpha and Omega, he the source, the ending he” says the fourth-century poet Prudentius, whose work is happily included among our Christmas hymns. We must never forget who the babe in Bethlehem is: he is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” This is what makes Christmas a miracle of grace: that the only begotten Son, the Word of God who is God, has made God known in frail, mortal human flesh.

And so we come to the second of the three births, the one most familiar to Christmas devotion: the birth in history of Jesus of Nazareth. St. John speaks of this, too, from his cosmic viewpoint: “And the Word was made flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”

The testimony of the evangelist — “we have seen his glory” — brings us finally to the third birth, the one that takes place in us: “to all who received him … he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

It was for this third birth — of the Word of God in us — that the Word became flesh; that we might become by grace what he is by nature. And here again the hymnody of the Church bears witness to this long tradition. In the final stanza of Phillips Brooks’s familiar hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” he writes: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”

We focus on the birth of the Word at Christmas just as the world, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, undergoes its annual rebirth at the winter solstice. It was by the best of pastoral instincts that the Church began celebrating the nativity of our Lord at this time. Since nobody knows just when Jesus was born, it made eminent sense to commemorate his birth at this dark season.

Amid the changes wrought by the tilt of the earth going around the sun, we can more fully take in the spiritual truth that with the Advent of our Lord the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not — and will not — overcome it. Beholding the light, we are transformed by the light, grace upon grace.

When I read about the solstice celebrations of pre-modern times, I’m always impressed with the energy and grit of those ancient peoples. How could they know, as the days grew steadily darker and shorter, that the sun wouldn’t disappear altogether, never to come back? What would happen to springtime and planting?

And so to coax the sun back into health or to woo him into returning, ancient peoples from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Circle engaged in various rituals to defy the darkness and welcome back the light. Great yuletide bonfires (the word “yuletide” itself derives from Old Norse) would be lit, sometimes burning for 12 days. Evergreen branches, symbol of continuing life among the deadness of winter, were brought inside. Sometimes these branches were formed into circular wreaths, symbolizing the orb of the sun and the endless movement of eternity. And when the sun finally did make his annual comeback, there were joyous celebrations that the human race, together with all living creatures, were once again spared everlasting darkness and death.

We don’t need the short days before the winter solstice to tell us we’re living in dark times. We each suffer our particular shadowy places, sometimes unknown to, or largely forgotten by, those around us. In our public life, we’re immersed in the darkness of lies every single day. As St. John’s Gospel says three chapters later, “the light has come into this world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

We see also the darkness of ignorance and denial in the face the overwhelming and ominous signs of global warming, a climate change so serious and threatening that we might well envy the naïve fears of our pre-modern forebears. If only our worry were merely that the sun might not return! But no natural revolution of the planet around the sun, no blind force of evolutionary adaptation, no assumption that somebody else somehow will fix this, can solve the catastrophe that is already upon us.

Only a profound change of heart, only deep changes in our personal and social habits — what the gospel calls repentance — will accomplish the greening, not just of our homes at Christmastime, but of the earth itself. We are called to new life, to allow the Word to be born in us, to become what Paul calls “adopted children” of God. But birth is never an easy process; it is a hard labor sometimes, with tearing of tissues and shedding of tears. For both parent and child, things are never the same.

But we really don’t want the same old same old, do we? What are all those New Year’s resolutions about, anyway, if not our yearning for a fresh start? The popular image of the turn of the new year — an old man carrying a sickle marching out, replaced by a baby in diapers — speaks of our longing for rebirth. In Christ, God has made all things new, even ourselves, if we but let him: “to all who received him” — that is, the Word made flesh — “he gave power to become children of God.”

It is right to be joyful in this holy season; it is an act of defiance in the face of encroaching darkness. It is not a joy that disregards the truth, is forgetful of the world’s suffering or the anguish of the planet. It is an affirmation of the light of Christ, who scatters all darkness before him. This light shines through us when we stand for justice in a world drowning in fear and violence. It shines through us when we try, as Christian environmentalist Bill McKibben urges us, to recover the virtues of self-limitation and self-control. That light shines through us when we rejoice in the Word made flesh and pray that he will take flesh in us. And that light will not be overcome.

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