"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it...And the Word was made flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth."
--John 1: 1-5, 14
Merry Christmas! Yep, it's still Christmas. Regardless of what the world around us says, we know it's still Christmas, right? And this past Sunday we got to hear my favorite Christmas story: the prologue to the Fourth Gospel.
There is no manger, no shepherds, no choir of heaven's angels to announce Christ's birth, not even a Mary and Joseph (they're never so much as name-dropped in the Fourth Gospel). There is only the Word. Nothing else matters. The only thing that is important to the writer of this gospel is that the One who was in the beginning, the Word through whom all things were made, the Light of all people, has come into the world.
But did you notice how the text put it? "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it." How excellent is that sentence? It doesn't say that the light comes into the world and destroys the darkness. Doesn't say that it disperses the darkness. Just that it shines IN the darkness. The reality, of course, is that there has always been and always will be darkness. You can call it the devil, you can call it life. Whatever you call it, it's as true now as it was in Jesus' day: there is always going to be darkness in this world. There are always going to be times when we look around and wonder how things can get any worse. War. Disaster. Personal tragedies. These are unavoidable. They're a part of life, sadly. Sometimes we ask ourselves how it is even possible for there to be light in such dark times. Yet the promise made here in this piece of prose that I think is the most beautiful in all of Holy Scripture, is that we are given the reassurance that the darkness will never overcome the light. Sometimes the light may only seem like a flicker, but it's there. The darkness can never, ever overcome it. And let me tell you, that's a truth that can sustain us and get us through some extraordinarily tough times in our lives.
I was a hospice chaplain for one summer. It was my clinical pastoral education, which is one of the biggest pieces of the curriculum when you're getting ordained. I chose to do mine with hospice, which was both rewarding and heartbreaking. I had one day especially where I visited several folks who were in nursing homes, folks who didn't even realize I was there. Then I went to the hospice wing of one of the local hospitals and spent time with folks who had about a week or less to live. And when I got back to the house I was drained. I was so sad. And when you added on the stuff going on in my personal life, you know, the usual stressful things that we all deal with, I was a bit of a mess. I sat down to read Evening Prayer, and THIS was the gospel reading for that day. I kept repeating that line: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. As I read and reread this sentence I realized that Jesus did not come to make everything in life perfect. There was never a promise from Jesus that life would be smooth-sailing by following him. Instead, Jesus' promise is simply that he will be in the midst of the darkness, still standing there, still shining. I needed that promise that night. And I've come back to that promise time and again. I whisper that line to myself (or to God) when I'm troubled, scared, or feeling weighed down by the darkness of life.
The light shines in the darkness. Christmas is the time when we celebrate that light breaking into our world in physical form in Jesus, but it's a light that was actually here the whole time. That light burned in the prophets as they proclaimed God's Good News of freedom. That light burned in the apostles even after Jesus left, inspiring them to form the Church as we know it. And believe it or not, that light is still here. In a world that mourns over mass shootings, where refugees are turned away when seeking solace, where politicians pander to people's prejudices and care nothing for the least of these, that light is still here. It might seem like a small match in the great sea of darkness that we find ourselves in, but the Christmas hope proclaimed in this gospel is that that light still shines. And it always will. It will because, in no small part, it burns in you. The light that burned at creation, it burns in you. You. The Body of Christ. As members of Christ's body you have that light inside you, and as long as you share it, as long as you let it continue to shine for others, the darkness will never overcome this world.
There's a story about a monastery in the hills of Europe. It was going through a really hard time. Folks weren't coming there anymore, so they weren't getting donations. The brothers were getting frustrated with each other, and the abbot was really worried. He talked to the bishop, who told him that if things continued, they may have to disband the order and leave the monastery. The abbot was at a loss, so he went down the hill leading to the monastery and went into the town to talk with the wisest person there: the old rabbi. He came to him and said, "Rabbi, I don't know what to do. The brothers argue like they never have. We are not getting people to come to visit, and I'm afraid we may have to close. What do I do?" The old rabbi, sitting there drinking his tea, never even looked up. He said: "The Messiah is in your midst." The Messiah is in your midst? The abbot said: "You mean that one of the brothers is the Messiah?" The rabbi never looked up, but the abbot ran back and shared the news with his brothers. Who could it be? Was it you? Was it you? No one knew. But from that day forward they treated each other as though each was the Messiah. They did everything any of us would do if we knew for certain we were in the midst of Jesus. The air in the monastery changed dramatically, and gradually people started coming back. That's the place with those monks who are so friendly, so caring for each other, they'd say. And the monastery thrived.
Amazing things happen when we know that Jesus is in our midst. They happen when we have the courage to recognize the light of Christ in each other, and when we dare to believe that it's actually inside all of us, just waiting to be shared, waiting to bring some light to what can be a seriously dark world. So let it shine! Let it shine! LET IT SHINE!!