FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS, I drove to Providence, and for many months, we commuters left home in the dark and returned home in the dark. Many of us know what it’s like to have to go out in the winter in the dark, only to come home and it’s still dark. It can feel overwhelming and defeating.
That feeling also applies to the emotional or spiritual darkness we often feel when we look around our world. The ‘darkness’ of natural disasters, systemic racism, economic and social injustice, a global pandemic with no real end in sight – this darkness threatens to overwhelm and defeat us.
“Umm Kara,” you might be thinking, “maybe turn up the holiday cheer a bit . . . perhaps a little more star of wonder and a little less gloom and doom?
Enter the Gospel of John: “The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (John 1:4-5 NLT).
In Genesis, God’s first word sang out into the wild and waste, separating light from darkness. John picks up on this foundational image and expands the light and darkness imagery to spotlight the spiritual war which is being waged between God and the hostile forces that seek to snuff out the light. Though they seem powerful, they cannot understand, cannot overwhelm, and cannot extinguish the Light of Christ, try as they might.
In the midst of very real darkness, this is the Christmas story we need. Not some hot cocoa veneer of holiday cheer, but the epic, heaven-and-earth-shaking truth of the eternal Light dazzling the darkness. Sometimes, in our cooing over the “little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay,” we forget that this baby shakes the rattle of battle, declaring war on the powers of evil and darkness.
The 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten powerfully and poetically reminds us of this truth in his carol This Little Babe, a song I first encountered in Dr. Henry Schellenberg’s College Singers:
This little babe so few days old is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake, though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise, the gates of hell he will surprise.
Britten takes the image of the little baby Jesus out of the Bethlehem crèche and onto the cosmic battlefield. These are powerfully contradictory images – this little babe makes hell itself tremble.
All around us, we see evil and darkness threaten to overwhelm the light. But this is not a battle that can end up going either way. Light and darkness are opposites, but they’re not opposites of equal power. One single ray of light frees us from the dark.
This little babe is the eternal Light that all the powers of darkness cannot understand, cannot overwhelm, and cannot extinguish.
That’s a word of holiday cheer if I ever heard one. In the midst of the darkness of December and the darkness of our world, we are invited into the Light. There’s only one way to defeat the darkness: “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (John 8:12).
Or, in Britten’s words:
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy.
Listen here to Britten’s frenetic and exquisite carol.
The Venerable Dr. Kara Mandryk graduated from Providence with a Bachelor of Arts (1995) and a Master of Arts in Bible & Theology (2001). She taught in the University College as the Associate Professor of Worship and Christian Spirituality from 2001 to 2016. Kara now lives in The Pas, MB, serving as the Coordinator of the Henry Budd College for Ministry and the Archdeacon of Ministry & Training in the Anglican Diocese of Brandon.