They say that when the universe came into being with a big bang, the explosion was accompanied by an initial flash of light. No one was around to see it, of course, but the remains of that light are supposed to be present still, in the form of background radiation. Apparently it took millions of years after that before the stars formed, and light became a permanent cosmic feature; even longer before our own solar system came into being. After that initial explosion of light, before the stars formed, or our own sun, there was simply universal darkness.
The elemental contrast of Christmas is between darkness and light. The angel in our Gospel finds the shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Lk. 2:8); the glory of the Lord shines for them in the darkness. When the wise men journey, in Matthew’s Gospel, they travel by the leading of a star, charting their course as the star rises in the east (Matt. 2:2). The prophet Isaiah foretells, “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” (Is. 9:2). As our psalm says this evening, “Light has sprung up for the righteous, and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted” (Ps. 97:11).
In John’s Gospel, we hear no story of Jesus’ birth, but the contrast between darkness and light is central there as well. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jo. 1:5), it says in that first chapter. John is riffing on the Genesis story, on the moment when God says, “’Let there be light’, and there was light” (Gen. 1:2). The Word of God, who is the light of all people, as John says (Jo. 1:9), is the same light that shone at the beginning of creation. Out of darkness, there is light.
This evening, there is darkness in many places in the world: in the trenches of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, in Gaza and in the border settlements of Israel; even in different degree in places in our own city of Nashville and elsewhere in our country. Not a literal darkness, but the darkness that John’s Gospel calls to mind: a moral darkness. “People loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (Jo. 3:19), it says in the third chapter. Darkness disguises things, cloaks them with obscurity and makes it easy for us to turn away and not to see them. Moral darkness works the same way. In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul talks about “the deeds of darkness” (Rom. 13:12), and he was sure on to something there.
Christmas represents the explosion of light in a world of moral darkness, of hopelessness and despair. It gives us a chorus of angels pronouncing “peace on earth” (Lk. 2:14), in a world that even then was rife with military occupation and oppression. It gives us the hope that the light which shines in the darkness will not be squelched by persistent, ruthless evil or by random acts of violence. Out of darkness, there is light.
Jesus Christ was born in the midst of this darkness. “Do not be afraid,” the angel says, “for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11). The child of Bethlehem comes to take away sin and death, those ancient enemies of the human race, through the forgiveness of sin and the resurrection from the dead. As St. Paul says in our second reading tonight, “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us… according to his mercy through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:4-5). Through the birth of Jesus Christ, new life is on offer in the Church: the antidote to despair.
The explosion of this light cannot be contained; it illuminates every shadowy corner of this world. “Light has sprung up for the righteous, and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted” (Ps. 97:11), as it says in the psalm. “Joyful gladness” is happiness that takes us by surprise. It comes over us when we are not expecting it; when the prospect is dim and there is no reasonable ground for hope. “Weeping may spend the night,” the Psalmist says elsewhere, “but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5). “Joyful gladness” exists at the margins, where darkness yields to God’s sudden, brilliant light.
God’s light is the light of the first day, the light of resurrection. It’s the light that overtakes the shepherds in our Gospel and pierces the night. It’s the light that shines on us this evening, bringing hope and joy to the whole world.