Frightening light

Dec 24, 2015 by

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The “rising sun” came unexpectedly and unobtrusively upon those living in darkness. It was a very small light in a very ordinary place. A baby. Of all things. A baby boy. Which didn’t seem very impressive or bright or hopeful.

But the light shone. And the darkness was very displeased.

Before long, the light was on the run, fleeing as a refugee from a murderous puppet king and an infanticidal decree. But even with the darkness in hot pursuit, the light was not extinguished.

It was a resilient light.

Eventually, the light returned home and found its way to the temple. It stood up and began to proclaim incredible things about the lame walking and blind seeing, about old, old stories about a coming savior being fulfilled (imagine!) in his coming.

The light left the temple. It proceeded to make its way around the countryside healing people of their diseases and casting out demons and showing kindness and compassion for the outsiders and forgiving sins and being delightfully irreverent and provocative with the religious know-it-alls, and providing free booze to lubricate a wedding party and walking on water and raiding the tombs and raising the dead.

The light was awesome. And the people loved the light. They loved the light very much indeed.

The light was hopeful and useful and inspiring. Sure, the light said some strange things from time to time — things that made very little sense, things about suffering and dying and mourning and loving enemies and facing mistreatment and dying to self and other things that didn’t sound very bright or victorious or hopeful. But, all things considered, the light was a very positive development, for those accustomed to darkness.

And so the people were very impressed by the light, and were eager to bask in its warmth.

Until the light decided to go and die. Until the light insisted upon following its own strange teachings. Until the light refused to respond to the darkness in the ways the darkness (and the people) were accustomed to.

And the people sighed and shuffled their feet. They trudged home, resignedly preparing themselves to get reacquainted with the darkness they had long lived under.

But then, against all odds, the light was relit. The light emerged from a dark, dank tomb, loudly declaring that the darkness could not overcome it, decisively vindicating everything that the light had said and done while with the people.

And the people loved the light again. And they followed the light. And their feet set out on the path of peace that was well-lit by the light.

But the decades and the centuries became long and labored. And the light that once seemed to shine so brightly didn’t seem as useful or inspiring or practical or hopeful as it once did. The darkness, too, was resilient, and the light seemed impotent against it. The darkness had efficiency and excitement on its side. The darkness was skilled at polarizing people, at stoking the flames of their tribalistic anger, of playing to their fears and suspicions of “those people.”

The light came to seem rather dim and not of much use for the lighting of paths.

Even for those who claimed to represent the light — those who formed communities around the light, those who spoke reverently about the light’s own words about cities on hills and lights on stands — the light began to seem a rather naïve and impractical response to the darkness.

Sure, the people spoke often of light driving out darkness and about the one who came to “guide their feet on the path of peace” (particularly around the Advent/Christmas seasons), and these words proved eminently marketable and profitable for the institutions that they had created for themselves ostensibly to honor the coming of the light.

(They were wonderful words, after all.)

But however much they talked about the light, however much they claimed to worship the light, however saturated their public gatherings and official statements seemed to be with references to the light, they seemed to have very little interest in questions of how, exactly, the light shone in the darkness or what the nature of its shining might require of those who claimed to be lovers of the light.

It was a very frightening light, after all.

It shone in demanding ways. It was a difficult light to trust. The darkness wasn’t ideal, certainly, but at least had familiarity on its side.

And the path to peace seemed, well, a little hard. Really hard, actually. It wasn’t at all convenient or profitable. It didn’t reinforce cherished boundaries between people, boundaries that bolstered identities and reinforced power. It seemed such a useless and feeble response to the darkness.

So the people ignored the light, taking refuge instead in their dearly loved poetic words about the light. They increasingly transferred “light language” to an unreachable and remote future that made no demands on the present. The light could hang out there, they thought, alongside other pleasant metaphors about swords and plowshares and lions and lambs.

The light was for the future. It couldn’t be trusted in the present.

The people had little interest, you see, in truly being people of light that could actually illuminate the darkness. In truth, they were pretty much convinced that darkness only speaks the language of force.

And so they hung on to their words about light and they loved these words very much. But when it came to actual dark things and people and events that frightened them, the words about light were shelved and the tools of darkness were dutifully marshaled. There was plenty of fear and anger and tribalism and commentary about “those people” and “our way of life” and “our values” and “a Godly nation.”

And there was, of course, violence. Plenty of that. Always plenty of that.

And yet, for all that, the light continued to shine in the darkness. For the light was, you recall, very resilient. Stubbornly, resiliently, relentlessly. It shines still.

It is, remember, a frightening light. Not only for the people, but for the darkness, as well.

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. — Luke 1:76-79

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. — John 1:4-5

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge (Alta.) Mennonite Church. He writes at Rumblings.

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