Holes In the Darkness
When the Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson was a child in 19th century Scotland, the story is told that one night his nanny came into his nursery to put him to bed. She found the little boy looking intently out of his bedroom window. When she called to him, he continued staring into the darkness, so she went over to ask him what he found so interesting outside. As she peered over his shoulder, she saw the lamplighter walking down the street, lighting the street lamps. Little Robert responded, “Look, Nanny. Look at that man. He’s punching holes in the darkness.”
There’s something about a light shining in the darkness that is so compelling. My favorite part of Christmas Eve is when we sing “Silent Night” with our lit candles. And when the lights are dimmed in the sanctuary, the candles shine even more brightly. Or do they punch holes in the darkness?
Heidi and I participated last year in a candlelight vigil following the public displays of racism in Charleston, S.C., that have become more legitimized of late. As we looked around and saw people punching holes in the darkness of hatred, those holes that were filled with light reminded us of what it means to be human, what it means that humans of every color and creed are made in the image of God. For those of us of faith, it reminds us that God chose to be one of us, and, it must be said, one of us – in Jesus of Nazareth – who happened to be more dark than light skinned.
Around the world, every culture and religion has a celebration of light around the time of the winter solstice, a “festival of light” as it were. It is a celebration in defiance of the darkness literally and otherwise, where lights are used to warm our hearts and rally our spirits.
When I think back on my childhood, Christmas Eve and the days leading up to it were our own festival of lights every year. The beginning was putting up the lights on our house and on our tree. I got to help Dad with lights on the outside of the house, and with mom on the inside as we strung lights on the tree. And then we couldn’t wait for it go get dark, so we could see the lights in bold relief surrounded by the winter night.
Now, no festival is possible without a feast and, once the 24th arrived, our Christmas Eve ritual began with the meal. For most of the year, we eat supper in the light, but eating this meal when it was dark outside always made it more special. And that’s good, because as feasts go, the Christmas feast was never as good as Thanksgiving. Christmas dinner, though it had some undeniable highlights like meatballs and mashed potatoes, also had some misses. For instance, there was the annual, once-a-year fruit soup. It had prunes in it and lots of them. Enough said.
Then there was the dish of cranberries which my mom was always trying to push on us three quarters of the way through the meal. I can still hear her say, “Doesn’t anyone want any cranberries? There’s still plenty left.” I used to say to my kid brother, “No kidding, there’s a lot left. That’s because no one’s touched them, except dad. I think he feels obligated.”
Then, of course, there was lutefisk, which a friend of mine once referred to as “fish jello.” Now, lutefisk is enough to scar any child for life, which might be why I am the way I am today. But it was still and feast with the whole family and the candles broke the darkness.
The next part in our Christmas Eve celebration was the religious part where we basically had a little church service at home, courtesy of a home devotional book called “Christ in Our Home.” My brothers and I knew that our friends didn’t have to endure a church service in their home on Christmas Eve, but we just accepted the fact that our dad was an ordained Lutheran minister and a church service could break out anytime, anywhere. And Christmas Eve was a given. So we read the Christmas story, sang hymns, and mercifully, there was no sermon – so it was tolerable.
Now, we all knew that this sacred time was important and all that, but it did delay the opening of presents, so we were kind of thinking ahead. However, there was this candle lighting ritual we did as a part of the service, where we would each have a candle and then take turns lighting our candle from the Christ Candle. As we lit our candle, each one of us would say, “I’m lighting my candle because I want Jesus to light my way.” The candles were pretty cool right next to the Christmas tree. More holes in the darkness!
Which brings us finally to the presents, the main event of the night! Anyone here ever tried to figure out what your presents were before Christmas Eve? Maybe you shook one of them or just picked it up to see how much it weighed? One time, days before Christmas, when no one was looking, my brother even opened some of his gifts, carefully, undoing the tape and gently unfolding the wrapping paper so he could see what was inside. Can you believe my brother did this?! Then he would try to wrap the package just the way it was before, so you couldn’t tell it had been opened. But that’s pretty hard to do, especially when you are gift wrapping challenged. I’m afraid everyone could tell exactly what I had done–I mean what Dave had done, because he’s the one who did it. Anyway, you get the point. Presents were pretty important.
And honestly, to see someone be excited about the gift you gave them, or to receive a gift that was really well considered and thoughtful, well…that is its own form of light. In fact, these are the basic moves of faith itself: receiving a cornucopia of gifts from God – including salvation itself – not because we’ve proven ourselves worthy but because we’re loved. Then giving to others out of gratitude and love.
Our family has grown by two generations now and added in-laws along the way. Our expanded family still gets together for Christmas, all thirty to thirty-five of us who are in the area, and when we do, it has much the same rhythm. We’ve now cut out the lutefisk and presents, but as time marches on, nothing stands out more than the candlelight service. There was something else that stood out on Saturday night: me. As I went up to light my candle, my nephew’s little girl, Taryn, all of 2 years old, who hasn’t seen a lot of me, blurted out, “he doesn’t have any hair!” Always nice to stand out in a crowd.
And during the years when we said goodbye to a member of our family, the ritual is even more special because, as we light that person’s candle in their absence, we experience a connection to our loved one through Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us!
Light has always played such an important role in the Christmas story. It was the light of a very bright star piercing the night sky that led the wise men to Jesus. It was the bright light from the angels that practically blinded the shepherds as they announced the Savior’s birth. In John’s Gospel it says, “A light has come into the world and the world cannot overcome it.” When the baby Jesus was presented at the temple, it was Simeon who declared that Jesus was “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Bethlehem was a dark corner in the middle of nowhere. The perfect place for a light to shine! It was a backwater place in a nation living under the cruel and oppressive thumb of Rome where most people were poor and many destitute. It was here the light came and shone in bold relief in the form of a God whose compassion led him to become one of us so that we would not be separated from God; so that God could share the very life of God with us.
The truth is, while we have to dim the lights in this sanctuary to create contrast with the candles, in our world, no one ever has to dim the lights. The longer you live, the more you realize how much darkness this world can generate, whether it’s personal struggles like loneliness or shame, or whether it’s global concerns, like racism, economic instability or armed aggression.
Which is why light shining in the darkness is even more important. Nothing dispels the darkness like God showing up in this world and telling us, “I’m all in with you, all of you, in all of your wonderful diversity, in all of your ups and your downs, in all of your joys and despairs. I am with you.”
So, as our lives are encouraged by the light that punches holes in our darkness, this same light draws us forward so that we too might be a light for those around us who struggle in the dark. How are you light for those around you? How are you a source of hope, encouragement and love?
A light has come into the world that the darkness cannot overcome. It punches holes in the darkness. It testifies to the power of the God of love who is with us, who claims us, who saves us from all forms of darkness, and then sends us. Thanks be to God. May you be filled with the light of Jesus always! Amen.