Christmas Eve 2016
On Christmas morning, my brother, Craig, and I, were never allowed to go into the living room, to see all the presents around the tree left by Santa, until both of our parents were awake. This meant in order to see the presents we had to wake our parents, which we did together, usually around 6 a.m. One Christmas morning, I must have been five or six, I remember sneaking down the hallway to peak into the living room before anyone else. I can’t recall if I peaked before or after waking our parents—probably, after, because I was a good boy (of course). All I know is that I was by myself, alone. I remember walking down the hall and turning right into the living room—and then it struck me. I stopped, almost pushed back by some force, and I stood there, at the threshold of the living room, stood there in awe. The entire room was full of light and the tree, loaded with tinsel, was shining. We didn’t have lights on our tree. It was still early in the morning, so I’m not sure where the light was coming from. My mother never used Christmas foil wrapping paper, which has a kind of sheen. I don’t know. I just remember how I felt, struck by the beauty of it all, the beautiful tree with its silvery tinsel, shimmering, and the gifts all wrapped in red and green. I was in awe. The room seemed alive. The light seemed to be alive.
Years later in college I was given a fancy word to describe this early mystical experience. It was numinous. Numinous, first coined by the theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), in 1917, describes an experience of awe, transcendence, and mystery, when you encounter something, someone wholly other, which completely overwhelms you. The numinous both fascinates and repels at the same time. Sometimes it’s joyful and beautiful; sometimes it causes you to quake with fear and trembling. Think of the shepherd’s outside of Bethlehem when the heavenly host appeared (Luke 2:8-14). In these moments life takes on greater intensity. Things, people, time, the Holy become really real. Numinous has its root in an old Sanskrit word, numen, meaning “to bow.” The numen causes one to bow, to kneel, or stand with awe in a doorway. The numinosity of that Christmas morning has never left me and I continue to be struck by it, overwhelmed with tears and deep feelings, not only from the memory of that moment, but the way the memory is associated with the celebration of Christmas. For it reminds me that it’s only through such experiences of awe and wonder, encounters with mystery and transcendence that we can begin to approach—and even then only at some distance—the meaning of Christ’s birth among us, with us, for us.
I am inadequate to convey the meaning of this night. We all are. How do we find the words to express what it means for the Word to become flesh and live among us? The birth of Jesus Christ stretches the imagination. It forces us to think in new ways and feel in new ways and even experience God in new ways. It requires symbols and metaphors, symbols and metaphors that are strong enough to convey the meaning toward which they point.
And that’s what we have in the Gospels. Matthew and Luke and John, each in their own way, are trying to evoke the meaning of his birth. They are each, in their own way, extremely numinous. Of the three, perhaps John is the most numinous, the most mysterious, who with his majestic and sublime prologue turns to the metaphors of Word and light and life. There’s nothing like is in scripture. Listen: “In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the light was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5). Even the metaphors are straining to bear the weight of what their trying to convey.
There’s one image or metaphor I want to lift up: light. There’s a play of light and darkness doing on here, which is obvious. But we have to be careful. We’re used to hearing of darkness waging a war against light. We need to remember that darkness, the absence of light, is also part of God’s good creation (Gen. 1:5). We need darkness to know the light. Where would light be without darkness? The darkness is a given. God pronounced it good. But darkness is also scary. Several weeks ago I was in Rappahannock County, Virginia, in a house in the middle of the woods in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was alone there for two nights and one night I went outside. It was very dark. The skies were heavy with low-lying clouds, no moonlight, no stars. Completely dark. I looked into the dark woods. For some reason I started to imagine what it must have felt like for our ancestors, millennia ago, who experienced the night before the discovery of fire, unable to see anything, unable to see danger approaching. It must have been terrifying. This is real primal fear, the residue of which can still be found in our reptilian brains and ancient psyches. At some level, it’s rational to be afraid of the dark because the dark was/is frightening, whether it’s the darkness of the night or the dark night of soul.
For many these days the world seems dark. The Winter Solstice this year witnessed the darkest night in 500 years. Consider the events of this past week in Berlin, Zurich, Aleppo, and Ankara, the talk of a new nuclear arms race. Very dark, indeed. People are anxious. People are afraid. People are worried about their safety, especially the most vulnerable among us.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” What we need to remember as Christ’s people, what we need to enflesh with our lives is the deepest truth that darkness cannot, will not ever overtake the light. Why? Because the light shines in the darkness. And what is light? Actually, John says that that’s the wrong question. Who—who is this light? Here, again, metaphors are pushed to their limits when it comes to the birth of Jesus.
“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” The Greek word for “life” in the text is zoë, meaning full life, abundant life, significant life, intense life. There’s no equivalent in English. Christ bears within his very being the abundance of life-giving life itself! And it’s this life, his life, God’s zoë through a human being, God’s love embodied for all to see and touch and love, it’s this very life that is the light of all people—whether they believe in him or not.
Christ is living light, the living light of God that shines in the darkest places of the world, which can never be overcome. And John didn’t say that the light only shone in Christ when he lived in Galilee. The light shines—he shifts to the present tense—in the darkness, still shines, now. Christ’s life still shines in us. This is the gospel, the good news. Not lights or Christmas trees that shimmer or presents under a tree, but a person, who when we meet him and look into his face—again and again and again—reflects the light of God.
This is the good news that we celebrate in the dark this night, the good news I invite you to claim in the shadow and darkness of these days. Indeed, it’s up to us, we who bear the name of Christ, to remember that our confidence and hope is in him, the one who alone is our life. “Do not be afraid,” the angels said to the shepherds (Luke 2:10).
The world needs you to not be afraid of the dark. The world needs you to share Christ’s light. Your job is not to conquer or even curse the darkness. Your job as a Christian, our job together as the Church, is to shine. Shining the light of Christ might increase the darkness around you. Sometimes a bright light makes the dark darker, heightens the contrast.
Don’t worry about the darkness.
Remember who shines through you—God’s living light.
Don’t worry about the darkness.
Remember who shines through you—God’s living light.
 Rudolf Otto first introduced this concept in The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational (Das Heilige, 1917), (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 5-6ff. Otto describes an encounter with the Holy as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, an experience of a mystery that both overwhelms and fascinates.