Thursday, December 2, 2021

Katie Snipes Lancaster

The Nativity
John 1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…

Reflection on the Nativity
This text is Christmas for me. Light. Darkness. An entryway into the very heart of the incarnation. Despite the early sunset, we find ways to signal this light in the darkness: the glow of the Christmas tree in the evening lights the way up to bed; December snow will surely soon sparkle on the LED-covered boxwood and winterberry bushes; “Silent Night” will soon be sung in the sanctuary, each of us enveloped by the butter-yellow gleam of candlelight. But even writing all that, I sense myself longing for Christmas Past, the pandemic propelling nostalgia to the forefront. This is all so hard. The texture of the nativity is darkness-drenched-in-light which for us means bitter-cold star-studded blue-black night skies, and it comes with longing and waiting equally ancient and urgent.

Beyond this initial and reflexive reflection on John 1:5, I find a ready tension between darkness and light. On the one hand, privileging our sense of sight, we often think that turning on the lights will help us to see. But sometimes it takes all the senses to find our way in the world. On the other hand, the poet-hymnist Walter Chalmers Smith urges us to sing, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” The light too, might dazzle and overwhelm, leaving us vulnerable and just as unable to meet the divine as we might otherwise be in the darkness. How do we pray amid such twists and turns?

Former Episcopal priest and self-professed “spiritual contrarian” Barbara Brown Taylor took up this theme of light in the darkness in her book “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” It is thick with the presence of God, tending to privilege not the pinpricks of light, but the darkness found between the stars. She said “God may be light, but God is the God of darkness too. In fact God does some of God’s best work in the dark. It took me years and years of thudding against all kinds of things to learn my way around a life that was not always well lit, but by and by I found that seeing through a glass darkly did not mean there was something wrong with my eyes, or with the glass. What it means is even when God is revealed most fully, there is still plenty of dazzling darkness left.”

There is so much room to walk around in the metaphor of light/dark. Maybe that is what draws me to this verse year after year (watch Bill’s 2020 Christmas Eve sermon or listen to this weekend’s sermon on Candlelight for even more). Praying this passage becomes tangible as we move from candlelight and starlight to the more metaphoric, following the contours of our daily lives to the places of deep joy, and raw sorrow. For some this pandemic season has been its own fumbling around in the dark. For others it has been as if someone turned on the lights (a re-prioritizing “ah ha moment” of sorts), and suddenly you could see and reimagine what was possible for you. Just the fact that “supply chain issues” is a phrase I find myself using after going to the grocery store (in search of kale and shredded cheddar, both sold out) reflects our collective 2021 fumbling, while the phrase “The Great Resignation” signals an exceptional season of re-prioritization. And beyond the extraordinary collective moment we are all experiencing, there is a more ordinary grief that would have come, pandemic or not, because of life’s perpetual unfolding. More than ever we need the One whose light shines in the darkness. More than ever, we need the One who is not and will not be overcome.

So for me, this passage calls us to name before God those tangible, life-changing, upside-down ways in which this long, challenging, and seemingly unending season ushers in dazzling darkness and light inaccessible—personally, in our families, in our communities, in our country, and in the world. Finding words to speak of our lives is itself a form of prayer; the Word listens. Let us name it all before the One who is light-shining-in-the-darkness.

Praying the Nativity
God of light-not-overcome,
let your dazzling darkness
and your light inaccessible
live among us in this season of waiting.