"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 were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:1-5).
The mass of worshipers gather. Small oil lamps lead the wise and unsoiled down cobbled streets and into the hall. The moon washes the marble loggias lining the way with a bluish glow. Frozen divinities crowned in the night sky by constellations, stars and planets bearing their names and rehearsing their legends. Athena's dogs fight for scrap in the city's slum as servants of the huntress sleep off the exhaustion of wine, women, and song pursued till the wee hours with lost abandon. Suddenly, silence is broken in the dark. At first, just a singular note reverberating off stone as one tongue defiantly sings, "in Him was life." Then the response, the words lilting together in a robust and melodious yet monotone echo: "And the light was the light of men." A hymn of confession, a creative chorus disrupting the drunken chaos of night as dawn breaks red on the horizon. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." Jesus is victorious. He lives here in His word. His light shines in the dark streets of Ephesus, where John leads the congregation, Christ's body, Christ's church.
This is the scene in which the words of John 1:1ff were originally recorded, learned and confessed, one of the first great hymns of the church. A hymn remembered during Epiphany as congregations sing, "The people that in darkness sat a glorious light have seen" (Lutheran Service Book, 412). The light they have seen is Jesus Christ who brings hope through His resurrection and the promise of eternal life to this dark world shadowed by death.
The world sat in darkness, and it is still darkness to many people today who live in despair and without hope. On the surface, that could perhaps read as an overstatement. We all have many neighbors, friends, family members, colleagues and coworkers who seem to get on just fine without the Light of the World. They may even look to be doing better than Christians who still fight the same issues, and maybe even have a harder fight.
We Christians are not immune to the aftereffects of drug and alcohol abuse in our own lives or those of friends and family. We battle with depression. Sometimes the law hits us hard and we wonder if we are good enough or if we are just being hypocritical. The world will tell us we are. We are no better than any of them. They are right to say that we are no better than any of them. That's the problem. The law has its way with us one way or another. Death comes to us all. We all feel its sting.
It’s the shadow of death that causes mankind to sit in darkness.
Author Ernest Becker is astonishing in his assessment of what this means for our lives. He maintains that the fear of death has its effect on almost everything we do in life. In The Worm at the Core, Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenburg test out Becker’s theories concerning the effect the fear of death has on our lives and verify them. In real time, they prove how confrontation with the image of death in any capacity increases a person’s likelihood to binge drink, go on a bender, shop compulsively, lose their diet, have an affair, or be harsh in their criticism of others. Even “healthy” coping mechanisms prove more often than not to be a last-ditch effort to cheat death. If you ever find yourself in court, pray your judge has not just attended a funeral. Studies show they inevitably give harsher sentences after attending the funerals of friends or loved ones. It's the shadow of death that causes mankind to sit in darkness.
It's this darkness that Christ came to dispel as the light of the world. This is the reason He chose to be born of a virgin and live such a mundane, normal life. We get his birth, and then his status as one refugee among many we know fled to Egypt under the tyrannical rule of Herod. Twelve years after that, we hear He impressed the rabbis in the temple. But then He disappears again into obscurity until He shows up to be baptized by John the Baptist and fulfill His purpose as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In His dying, He brings hope to the nations. A hope like light at the end of a tunnel promising of fresh air and space to find your bearings. It's easy to lose them in the dark.
On Christmas, it is precisely in the straw that we finally find light.
This is why those who get drunk get drunk at night as Paul says in 1 Thess. 5:7. It’s the same reason the morally superior and self-righteous addicts never seem to have enough: you can’t shine light on the sins of others without exposing your own trespasses. With sin of any sort, there is no light. There is no hope, just groping in the dark, grasping at straws. And yet, on Christmas it is precisely in the straw that we finally find light.
On Christmas Eve, the Light of the World lays in a manger of hay. This is Jesus, God made man, who lived our life with us so that He could die for us. In His dying and resurrection, He defeated death on our behalf He has come to forgive our sins, to be our Savior, and to overcome all darkness as our light. In doing so, He restores our dignity with His love, restores our holiness with His mercy, and gives us reason to live in this world, to live and laugh at death. It’s in the light that we can celebrate life with a fearless sobriety even as we drink our Christmas cheer. He restores our bearings that we would know true joy. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh is the Light of the World shining on a hill for all to see. He is your light, a lamp to your feet.