Light over darkness

  • December 4, 2009
Recently, I was chatting with a friend about many things — the state of Christianity, of the economy, the world, our lives, people we know. Finally my friend remarked, “The older I get, the more I see that there’s far more evil than good in the world.” His comment was quite understandable. Whether you look around, or whether you look within, it’s evident that evil twines everywhere, like a serpent coiling around one’s legs or a vine climbing a stone wall.

We happened to be sitting in front of a display of beautiful Christmas merchandise: wreaths, trees, toys, gifts and a stunning life-size nativity set. The nativity figures were all swathed in flowing clothes of filmy materials that enhanced their beauty, the way clothes should. The figures were artfully arranged so that they seemed to glorify one another, the way people should. The whole effect was a vision of loveliness, without shadow or pain or evil.

Christmas, or “The Holiday Season,” as celebrated in Canadian culture, is pretty.  Cheerful songs; shiny ornaments; charming people grouped in bright rooms giving each other lovely things; colourful lights, smiling images. No shadows here either, no coiling serpents or twining vines. Even appeals to buy turkeys or toys for the needy don’t seem to mar the prettiness, but only add a satisfactory awareness that not only are we happy and charming, we are good, too. 

It’s one of the hardest ways we could elect to live it. Fashioning a pain-free oasis, with indelible borders that keep all else beyond our vision, is bound to skew our relationship to reality. Here’s some Prince Edward Island wisdom to illustrate:

“Presently Anne said, ‘I never like walking with a lantern. I have always the strangest feeling that just outside the circle of light, just over its edge in the darkness, I am surrounded by a ring of furtive, sinister things, watching me from the shadows with hostile eyes…. I never feel like that when I’m really in the darkness — when it is close all around me — I’m not the least frightened’ ” (Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne’s House of Dreams).

It’s a trick of evil to pretend that good does not exist; good, on the other hand, doesn’t need to deny the reality of evil or pretend away the hard things. Christmas, the feast of Christ’s Nativity, claims the Light that the darkness could not overcome (John 1:5) — not the Light that encases itself in fortified walls to protect itself from the darkness. That’s why we’re encouraged to enter into the shadowy places in preparation for the Nativity: the shadow of the end-times; the danger and uncertainty of the Bethlehem pilgrimage; the unknown inner depths.  “Go without fear,” as Catherine Doherty wrote, “into the depths of (human) hearts.” An astonishing command, given the fearsome things that lurk there. Still, it’s the way Christ went, so those who love Him want to walk that way, also. And may be surprised at the results.

A man I know was telling his history; painful to tell, but possible because of his attentive listeners. He finished with the question: “how could anyone love me after what I’ve done?” He’d been walking many years in the darkness of shame, carrying it closed up inside like a locked briefcase chained to his wrist. Prayerful community presence allowed him to enter into the locked inner chamber, and indeed, broke the lock. Had he not dared to enter, perhaps he would have carried that burden forever. But he did dare, and the burden not only was lifted, but was changed from a burden to a gift. Having received, he also could give. 

“Way back in the beginning, Adam and Eve took on the burden of sin and shame. So they and their descendants (us) must work out their relationships outside of Paradise. But God gave them a gift: He made for them garments” (Genesis 3:21). He didn’t reject them; He gave something new. He didn’t wait ’til they were good enough to deserve it; He gave when they needed it, in their shame and sorrow. That’s why it’s here, on the “roadway to Paradise,” where shame and sorrow dwell, and evil seems far more prevalent than good, that we receive something ever-new, the Gift of all Gifts, the Light that shines from above and from within, that turned the shepherds’ faces to glory and made of a human being a Bearer of God. 

And so the lovely life-size Nativity set, without shadow or pain, handsome and even glorious, does give us a glimpse of how things look. Not that there never was pain or shame, but that even they are taken up into radiance. We’re given this truth now, on the roadway to Bethlehem, to Paradise, to the end times, and to whatever awaits us over these days of Christmas. We needn’t receive it alone; like the shepherds, we each receive it in our own way, but we’re all in it together.