In the Canadian Arctic, where I live, the days surrounding Christmas are short and full of darkness. We wake up before the sun rises, and watch it go down in the early afternoon. This scarcity of sunlight is challenging for many; depression and mental health issues are common. Yet there is also a stark beauty to this time of year. I often find myself staring in awe at the sun setting over the treeless horizon, splashing rich oranges and reds across the frozen sea ice and rocky tundra.
In these dark days, the scriptural image of light strikes me as especially poignant. St. John’s magnificent prologue, which we read on Christmas Day, is most fitting: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). So too the radiant prophecy of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isa. 9:2). The Scriptures are saturated with imagery of light; they begin with God speaking light into being and end with the heavenly Jerusalem alight with the glory of God.
Light also features prominently in the birth accounts in the Gospels. In Matthew’s Gospel, the magi are guided by a bright star that lights up the night sky. In Luke’s account, an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds “and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:8). To be sure, there is plenty of darkness in these stories, particularly Herod’s murderous purge of all the baby boys in Bethlehem. And yet what stands out most of all is the sheer exhilarating brilliance in these Christmas stories. No surprise, then, that famous depictions of Jesus’ birth typically portray the Christ child bathed in a stream of bright light.
All of this serves to remind us what a wonderful thing it is that God became man, and what a glorious thing it is that the true light continues to shine in the darkness of our lives. We are liable to forget how deep the darkness in us goes, and are all too accustomed to denying the sinfulness that pervades our lives. But the Gospel is not a self-help project; it is a radical intervention from outside. Karl Barth eloquently reminds us of this fact, as recorded in Insights: Karl Barth’s Reflections on the Life of Faith (Westminster John Knox, 2009):
Hidden underneath [the surface of our lives] there is a depth, a bottom—indeed, an abyss. And there below are we human beings, each in our own way, only poor beggars, only lost sinners, only sighing and dying creatures, only people who are now at their wit’s end. And at this very time Jesus Christ comes to stay with us, and what’s more: he has already come to stay with us. … There he only waits for us to see him, to know him, to believe him, to love him. There he greets us. There we can do nothing other than greet him again and bid him welcome.
Thanks be to God! During this holy season of Christmas may we take in all the light our Lord offers.