I once read a short story entitled “My Dad and I”. In the story the boy tells us about an experience he had one Sunday afternoon while out walking with his dad in the forest. It was beautiful late afternoon when they started out, but they had misjudged the time and soon darkness overcame them. In order to find their way home, they walked along a familiar railway line. It being dark, the boy became afraid, slowly inching closer and closer to his dad; who then took a firm hold of his hand and assured him that there was nothing to be frightened of or worried about. And yet the author tells us that, even as a young boy with his hand in his father’s, he still felt a little afraid and alone – his father’s words could not completely soothe him. And so they walked on in silence, the boy feeling darkness envelop his heart. As they were rounding a turn, they suddenly heard a thunderous noise. The father snatched up his boy and jumped from the train tracks, landing in a hole in the wall on which the tracks ran. From their hole they could see and feel the express train fly by. The young boy could only stare at the receding train as his father picked him up and put him back on the tracks saying: “Strange, I wonder what train that was. There isn’t supposed to be a train coming by here at this hour”. They walked further in silence, eager to get home. When mulling over this event later on, the writer states that: “My whole body was shivering, for I understood what it meant. It was a preview for all of the unknown that lay ahead in my life – there were things that not even my father could protect me from, things that not even he knew about, things that lay ahead of me in the dark…”
Why this seemingly depressing and ill-suited tale for Christmas? Because it illustrates so succinctly a child’s realization that we are all exposed to the reality of the dark in our lives. But Christmas is not the time to be talking about darkness and fear and the unknown, I hear you say. No, Christmas is, after all, the “season to be jolly” – that time of year where we get to forget everything that is unpleasant about life and focus on the beautiful and the peaceful (even if only in shop window displays and TV ads). But can the good news of Christmas really be any good if it does not take into account the reality of the darkness in our lives and in our world? Christmas has to be more than a tranquillizer that helps us to forget (or at least suppress) the pain of our reality for a few hours. We cannot talk about peace and light if we sidestep issues like darkness and discord, because people still experience suffering and darkness – ESPECIALLY at Christmas time.
“And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. And an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you: Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased.” – Luke 2:8-14
Even the good old nativity story – the one we dress up in festive wrapping paper every year – begins with darkness and suffering. It begins with a census – for us a very innocent and convenient thing (because even though the people do ask a lot of questions they at least come to your door). But the story behind the census mentioned in the Gospels is a horse of a totally different colour! See, it was all about money…about making sure the Roman government got what it thought it deserved (with a little extra on the side). Just listen to the way a Roman author from the same era – Lactantius – describes the process of the census: “Each spot of ground was measured, vines and fruit-trees numbered, lists taken of animals of every kind, and a capitation-roll made up. In cities, the common people, whether residing within or without the walls, were assembled, the market-places filled with crowds of families, all attended with their children and slaves, the noise of torture and scourges resounded, sons were hung on the rack to force discovery of the effects of their fathers, the most trusty slaves compelled by pain to bear witness against their masters, and wives to bear witness against their husbands, In default of all other evidence, men were tortured to speak against themselves; and no sooner did agony oblige them to acknowledge what they had not, but those imaginary effects were noted down in the lists. Neither youth, nor old age, nor sickness, afforded any exemption. The diseased and the infirm were carried in; the age of each was estimated; and, that the capitation-tax might be enlarged, years were added to the young and struck off from the old. General lamentation and sorrow prevailed”. THIS is the way that “silent night, holy night” began.
“And they shall pass through it, sore distressed and hungry; and it shall come to pass that, when they shall be hungry, they shall fret themselves, and curse by their king and by their God, and turn their faces upward: and they shall look unto the earth, and behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and into thick darkness they shall be driven away. But there shall be no gloom to her that was in anguish…The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined…For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 8:21 to 9:6
The people to whom the author of Isaiah was writing were clearly also experiencing very bad times, times of oppression and hopelessness – probably during the Assyrian invasions. People were either tortured in the cruelest ways thinkable, or taken as slaves; every city through which the Assyrian’s moved burnt down to the ground. It was a time of famine and intense anguish, a time of spiritual, economic and political crisis. It should be obvious why darkness became such a fitting metaphor for their situation. And so it becomes clear that the meaning of the darkness of the night the prophet Isaiah describes, the meaning of that first Christmas night was not at all the silent and holy night we have imagined it into and remember it to be: a night with Christmas lights, a table overflowing with food, a tree overflowing with gifts and seeming happiness everywhere. The irony here being that both the nation and Mariah and Joseph had to continue on in their circumstances. It almost makes you want to say: it was evening and it was morning, but it stays dark. And that is a truth that we cannot cover up with fairy lights and presents. “Night” here is humanity’s darkness: rage, despair, disillusionment and doubt; the exact opposite of what God’s intention for creation was when He said: “Let there be light“. And that experience of darkness and despair is something that we ourselves experience daily in one form or another – the world and the context that we live in doesn’t guarantee our safety, belonging or peace…not even within the confines of our family. We often feel surrounded by darkness, darkness with many faces – economic pressure, relationship crises, loneliness, despondency, sickness and death.
But it is EXACTLY against the backdrop of this darkness that LIGHT appears. In-between all the nights and dark times of all the ages one special night crept in – that first Christmas night. Yes, God came in the “night”, in the darkness; and then not only so that we can get together once a year, become a bit sentimental and forget the darkness of our reality for a while. No, God came in the night/darkness – God came for the night/darkness. God came for people whose lives had become dark, for people afraid of what the future might hold. So Christmas does not say that there is no darkness in our lives or in the world. Christmas does not say that that darkness does not have influence. Christmas does not say: “all is well”. Christmas DOES say that in that darkness we are not alone, for in the darkness is the Child – Immanuel: God with us. Christmas says that God committed Himself to us and to our night by becoming one of us. In the midst of our doubt and fear, a wonderful Counsellor; in the midst of our inability, a mighty God; in the midst of our violence, a Prince of peace; and, in the midst of our isolation, an everlasting Father. Somewhere in our story of suffering and pain and darkness, a word was spoken – the Word that became flesh – and it is THIS Word that comes to us in the darkness, that speaks into our night, that holds us in our darkness. In every night and any darkness.