Most of us have gotten used to a lot of light.
Even in what we call darkness, there is usually enough illumination – from street lights sneaking through cracks in the blinds to colorful appliance displays glowing in the home – to find one’s way around the house without stubbing a toe.
It takes great effort, for most us, to get far enough away from civilization to truly see a star-filled sky. Darkness is something we deal with only on our own terms.
So it is interesting how we often turn to the olden days of candlelight at Christmastime. The irony is that the darkness illuminates that which we often fail to see in the bright lights.
It brings into better focus the words and world of Jesus, who said, “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness (John 12:46).
Even in our well-lighted world, there is a lot of spiritual, emotional and societal darkness in need of the illuminating love and wider mercy that Jesus continues to bring when he is not shut out of our lives.
It is hard to grasp how much the world has changed since the night Jesus was born in an obscure village beyond Jerusalem. Those changes – sociologically, politically and technologically – are simply immeasurable and somewhat overwhelming.
Interestingly, many churches (especially in non-pandemic times) promote Christmas Eve worship as a “candlelight service.”
For centuries, that was the only kind of service that could be held in the evening – until well after the 1870s when Thomas Edison got the “bright idea” for viable incandescent lighting.
So why do we dim perfectly good lights installed in our homes and places of worship this hallowed time of the year? The answer is simple: Because, sometimes, we see too much.
In his book, Soul Salsa, Leonard Sweet said one of the dangers of our well-informed, well-lit, modern world is that we try to erase all the mysteries of life.
“There is a reason for shadows,” Sweet writes. “A candlelight consciousness reveres mystery, revels in marvels, avows awe …”
“A deep spirituality is not afraid to let the mystery shine,” he adds, “the mystery of why a spotted animal can have a striped tail, but a striped animal cannot have a spotted tail; the mystery of why people with weak bladders prefer window seats on airplanes; the mystery of a ‘love, so amazing, so divine, [it] demands my life, my soul, my all.’”
Truth is not always revealed in the bright lights, but better seen in the shadows of God’s mysterious love.
There is nothing logical about God taking on human form, arriving in a simple place and time. The truth of that amazing act of love must be seen in the flicker of candles or in darkness itself.
We have to look more attentively at the unfolding of this history-breaking event – or the whole season gets overshadowed by the eager but failed attempts to make meaning out of it ourselves.
“Those who missed the Majesty’s arrival that night missed it not because of evil acts or malice,” author Max Lucado said. “No, they missed it because they simply weren’t looking.”
It’s easy to get distracted. But the mystery of God-made-flesh is not easily found in the artifical lights that illuminate our well-decorated and fast-paced living.
Rather, this life-changing, priority-shifting revelation emerges yet again in a dimly lit stable in a place called Bethlehem.
Many holiday seasons ago, I assisted my daughter’s middle-school English teacher on a field trip to Atlanta with what seemed to be about 12,000 seventh graders. We attended a wonderful production of “A Christmas Carol” at the Alliance Theatre.
A line in the play – though not in the original story – jumped out at me in that darkened theater. It was when the Ghost of Christmas Present said to Scrooge, “Christmas Eve shines its light on the dimly lit path to redemption.”
Indeed it does. Turning down lights is about more than nostalgia. It’s about eternal hope.
The manger is the starting point from which we travel the continuing path to redemption. This same Jesus we welcome as a child is the means by which God continually expresses love to us more clearly – and through whom God demonstrates the most amazing grace.
It is this child born in the shadows – the one whom John the Baptist bore witness to as “the true light” – who still calls followers out of the darkness of self-absorption into the sacrificial and meaningful Way of Christ.
Not everyone warmly embraced the gift of Jesus coming into the world. There were those threatened by a life so marked by love, forgiveness and inclusion.
They failingly tried to snuff out this true light. Yet even in the death of Christ the darkness did not prevail. Soon the light shining into an empty tomb revealed the rest of the story.
Indeed, Jesus does not want us to “stay in the darkness” of ignorance, evil, fear, exclusion and death. Yet perhaps by turning down our artificial and destracting bright lights for a few moments this season – even in our homes – we might encounter anew the Light of World that can never be extinguished.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.