What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
Sometimes, when I am preaching at a reconciliation service for children, I will ask how many of them are, or ever have been, afraid of the dark. I ask the parents too. Lots of us raise our hands. Because darkness is a fearsome thing. In those homilies, I liken the darkness to sin, which is fearsome as well, because it takes us out of relationship with God, out of relationship with the people in our lives, and out of relationship with the Church.
None of us likes darkness. One of the things I like to do this time of year is to drive around the neighborhoods I pass through and look at the Christmas lights. Some of them are very elaborate, some are almost what I like to call “Griswoldian,” after the characters in the movie “Christmas Vacation.” I know that I look forward to putting up the lights for Christmas, and I always love to see the creativity of others who have lit their houses. As the days get shorter and the nights get longer, as darkness comes earlier and earlier, having brightly lit trees and houses seems to be a way of ordering the darkness to get lost and not to terrify us any longer. We are a people who crave the light, who need it at the very core of our beings. We were not made for darkness, but for light.
All during Advent, we have been yearning for the light. Advent reminds us that the world can sometimes be a very dark place, that war and terrorism and crime and disease and sin and death can really give us a beating, that very often we experience life much differently than God intended us to, and that all of this darkness has kept us from union with our God. But Advent also has reminded us that it’s not supposed to be that way, and that God has always intervened for love of the people he has created. And so in Advent, we came to see that God promises salvation for the people that are his own, and that he would do everything to make that promised salvation unfold for us.
The Old Testament unfolds for us the many ways that God has intervened in history to save his people. He placed man and woman in the Garden of Eden, safe from all harm, should they choose to accept it (which, of course, they did not!). He brought eight people through the deluge of the great flood on Noah’s Ark. He promised Abraham his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky. He led his people out of slavery in Egypt, through the desert and into the Promised Land, protecting them and guiding them through the hand of Moses all along the way. His love for his people, his desire that they be one with him, and his efforts to save them from their own folly have been abundant all through human history. But as numerous as his efforts have been, so have humankind’s failures to follow him been numerous as well.
Which brings us to the event we celebrate today. Let’s be clear: this is not some last-ditch effort before God throws up his hands and leaves us to our own devices. This is the saving event. This is the way to salvation that has always been intended and has been promised through the ages, from the very days of the creation of the world, when the Word, as Saint John tells us today, was with God, and with God, was the Word through which everything in heaven and on earth came to be.
This awesome event is the Incarnation: Jesus, the Word through which all were created, comes to be one of the created ones. This is the primordial mystery of our faith: without the Incarnation, there could be no cross, no resurrection, no ascension, no salvation. None of the savings events of the Old Testament could be as wonderful as the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery: in fact, those previous acts of salvation led up to the salvation we have in Christ Jesus, and paved the way for that saving act. In today’s feast, the great light of Christ has taken hold of the darkness this world brings us and shatters it forever, shining great light into every corner of our dark world, and into our sometimes very dark lives as well.
That’s all very theological and theoretical, I know, and maybe it goes over our heads most of the time. So let me put this all another way. For this illustration, I have to thank one of my seminary professors, who beat this image into our heads over and over again. Here’s the way it works: God always intended for us to be with him. But, that became impossible, because over time we developed this great, dark chasm of sin and death. That chasm separated us from God, and we could not reach across it to get to God. So, on December the 25th, in the year Zero, if you will, God sent his only Son to be our salvation. He was born into our midst and became one of us: he walked our walk, he lived our life, and he also died our death. But that death did not last forever: instead he rose to new life that lasts forever, canceling out that great chasm of sin and death, and forever uniting us to God, allowing us to live the life God always intended us to have. Now, I should mention, he used to call that chasm the “deep dark yogurt of sin and death,” and he once explained that he used that image because he didn’t like yogurt!
You get the idea. This gift of the Incarnation is the best Christmas present we will receive – it is the best gift of any kind that we will ever receive, because in the Incarnation we have what’s necessary for us to be saved. This is so important a mystery and so great a gift, that at the words of the Incarnation in the Creed today, we are instructed to genuflect, not just bow. So we will genuflect when we say the words, “by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” And we genuflect because we remember with great gratitude that if the Word didn’t become flesh, if he wasn’t born of the Virgin Mary, if he didn’t become one like us, if he didn’t pay the price for our sins, we would never have salvation, or hope of life with God. Praise God for this great gift today!
And so as we continue our prayer today, we offer God the darkness in our lives: our sins, our frustrations, our disappointments, our pain, our grief – and we hold up all of this to the great Light that is God’s Word, the one who became one like us, who pitched his tent among us, and who dwells with us now. We pray that the Light of the world would banish our darkness, and help us to see the way to God from wherever it is that we find ourselves on the spiritual path today. We celebrate that, today and every day, Jesus Christ is the Light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.