Twelve Days: The Light Shines

At the stroke of midnight in the midwinter cold, the new year begins in darkness.

When the morning breaks, the world will appear unchanged, grey and still, with long months of short days yet to come. Still, it is new. All around us is a slow resurrection. Not the turn of a calendar page, but the stir of seeds sheltered deep in the earth, waiting to climb to the warmth of spring.

Save that she’s a fellow academic — though clearly a better writer than many people with doctorates — I don’t really know a lot about our soon-to-be First Lady. But whatever her religious beliefs, mine make it hard to read the meditation she shared on January 1st as anything other than a deeply Christian reflection on the hope that we celebrate this time of year.

All the more so when her closing words so clearly echo our gospel text for this second and last Sunday in the brief season of Christmas:

Let this be a year of illumination, of switches flipped in long-empty classrooms and office buildings, of candles burning at overcrowded dinner tables, of fireworks painting the sky in celebration.

In this dark beginning, we reach toward the light.

“What has come into being in him was life,” begins John’s gospel, “and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:3b-5).

Christmas has always been a festival of light. That’s been true from the start, when God’s glory shone around angels appearing to shepherds by night and a star stopped over the place where the Magi found the king of the Jews. But if the first symbols of light shining in the darkness were supernatural, now they seem much more prosaic: candles flickering quietly in temporarily emptied sanctuaries and electricity illuminating everything from trees to malls.

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Even at its gaudiest or most garish, such illumination can still remind us that Christ came as “the light of all people,” for Christmas is a celebration of the Incarnation. As our epistle for today reminds us, God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3), but God has shown “his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” by bringing heaven to earth, by making the Word flesh, to live among us (John 1:14). Not in the pristine purity of a Platonic ideal, but in the messy complications of carnal existence.

And he does to this day. For, as Julie Canlis wrote a couple years ago, “the Incarnation is the rule, not the exception. God enters into the world and engages with us on creation’s terms. He uses ordinary, created things to bless us, save us, minister to us. Our ordinary humanity is the place he has chosen to meet with us.”

I think that’s why I like Biden’s blessing so much. The light shines in the darkness not through extraordinary means but ordinary activities: people going back to work, including educators returning to schools (where we so often speak of learning in terms of “lights going on”); holiday rituals that we may have missed in 2020; and family and friends gathering over meals.

If that seems too mundane, keep in mind that that’s how Jesus experienced illumination. “The story of the Incarnation,” Canlis adds, “is shockingly domestic. When he comes to earth, God places himself not in a palace but in a family. It is there, in the confines of siblings and parents, unnoticed by the whole world, that the new creation begins.” Where else but in his home and synagogue in Nazareth did he see lamps like those featuring in one of his parables, or like the one he urged his followers not to hide if they were truly to be “the light of the world”?

So as the Christmas light of the Word made flesh continues to shine in the midwinter darkness, let us recommit to spend the new year making our light to “shine before others,” using the ordinary things of our ordinary lives to bless our neighbors, “that they may see your good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

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