|Today’s scripture readings:
I often find myself wondering about the moment after. Do you know what I mean?
Awhile back I watched a film called “Mitt,” a documentary that told the behind-the-scenes story of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. The filmmakers gained extraordinary access to the candidate and his family and followed them nearly everywhere they went. The film’s final scene has really stuck with me. Having lost the election, conceded defeat, and thanked his campaign staff and volunteers, Mitt and his wife Ann get in their car—Mitt himself is behind the wheel—and they drive back to their home in Belmont, Massachusetts. The videographer is filming from the back seat, and as the car approaches their townhouse, you see Mitt reach up and push his garage door opener. They pull into the garage and the couple gets out. They walk toward a black SUV that has been following them. Secret Service agents emerge and they all share a round of hugs and words of appreciation. Moments later, the SUV drives off, and Mitt and Ann walk into the house alone, each of them carrying a suitcase. They set their bags down. Ann hangs her coat in the closet. Mitt makes his way into the living room, where he finds a chair and gazes out the window. Ann sits on a couch on the opposite side of the room, looks longingly over at her husband, and lets out a long, deep sigh. That’s it. The excitement is over. The crowds have gone home. They are left alone with their thoughts. That’s the moment after.
This service on Christmas Day always feels a little bit like that to me. It’s the moment after. The crowds have gone home. The excitement is over. Last night this sanctuary was packed as Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem and found themselves embroiled in the commotion of childbirth. Jesus was born, the multitude of angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest,” and shepherds arrived to pay homage. The night reached its peak with the exuberant singing of “Joy to the World” accompanied by glorious brass and the beautiful choir. It’s a different scene this morning. The crowds have dispersed. The shepherds have gone back to their flocks. The angels are nowhere to be found. Mary and Joseph are alone with their newborn. Exhausted and overwhelmed by last night’s events, words are sparse. Today is a day for settling in, for quiet reflection, for coming to terms with the realization that life will never be the same. It’s a day for asking, “What does all of this mean?”
I’m struck today by the themes of light and darkness running through today’s Gospel reading. John describes Jesus as the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. We know the darkness. It’s not just that these are literally the darkest days of the year. Some of us feel the darkness of these times deep in our bones.
When the prophet Isaiah proclaimed the message captured in today’s first reading, he didn’t need to go into much detail describing the darkness; they felt it deep in their bones, too. Isaiah’s message was a message of hope for an audience who knew darkness all too well. The Israelites’ Promised Land had been overrun by people who didn’t share their values and didn’t worship their God, by an empire interested only in expanding its own power and wealth. Their leaders had abandoned their most deeply held values and conspired with foreign powers that would ultimately bring them to ruin. The holy nation God’s chosen people had built together was desecrated and destroyed.
Our own experience is different. But even today the headlines thrust us into the dark. The theologian Henri Nouwen once said the darkness “is so visible and tangible… that it is often difficult to believe that there is much to think, speak, or write about other than our brokenness.” Some of us are too overwhelmed with the darkness in our own lives to even acknowledge the anxiety and pain that seem so pervasive throughout our world today—in Turkey, in Berlin, even right here in our own country. For some of us, this is the first Christmas without a loved one who has died, or the first Christmas alone after a divorce. For others, the joy of the season has been overshadowed by the stress of meeting family obligations, or the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations.
The Christmas story according to the Gospel of John is the story of a God who refuses to leave us alone in our darkness, who longs to be with us as the shadows are closing in. John’s Christmas story is the story of a God who comes to earth as one of us to be our light and our life and our hope. It’s no coincidence that John’s Gospel begins with an allusion to the very first verses of Genesis, “in the beginning” when God created heaven and earth. John wants us to hear that Jesus’ coming into the world offers us a new beginning, a fresh start. Darkness will not win the day because this is a new day. God is recreating the world, and Jesus is at the center of it. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not and will not overcome it.
But for all the beauty and poetry of this passage from John’s Gospel, there are also hints of trouble. Jesus has come into the world, John says, but then we read that “the world did not know him” and “his own people did not accept him.” In these opening verses of John’s Gospel we hear that the light that shines in the darkness will not be so warmly received.
The thing about light is it doesn’t just scatter the darkness that threatens to do us in. It also reveals things we’d rather keep hidden in the shadows. Jesus is the light that exposes truths we’d rather not see. In John’s Gospel, Jesus seems always intent on stripping away whatever prevents the truth from being known. So many of us work so hard to conceal our bumps and bruises and struggles, as though sweeping them under the rug will diminish the pain or protect our public personas. There are so many ways we try to conceal the truth so we don’t have to confront the reality that makes us squirm. Just consider how many of us choose to get our news from media outlets that confirm our own point of view rather than challenging our opinions. Jesus shines light into the shadows and reveals the truths we’d rather not see. It’s no wonder “his own people did not accept him.”
But many of us have learned that allowing the truth to be known is the only path to abundant life, the only way our brokenness and pain can be transformed by God’s grace, the only way we can establish trust with one another and experience reconciliation. Shining light into the darkness and confronting the truth is how we find healing and liberation. That’s why, a little later in John’s Gospel, Jesus will tell his disciples that those who follow him will know the truth, and the truth will set them free. The light that shines in the darkness will expose the lies that imprison us and reveal the truth that brings us new life.
Last month Oxford Dictionaries announced that “post-truth” is its 2016 international word of the year. Commentators have pointed out that we are living in a world where facts don’t seem to matter much anymore. The very idea of factuality itself has been called into question. Truth, it seems, is whatever you can get people to believe. In the face of such uncertainty, with fake news and blatantly erroneous statements bombarding us at every turn, when you can’t even be sure what’s real, it’s hardly any wonder that many have spurned objective facts and choose to believe what feels true to them.
The editors of the Christian Century wrote in the latest issue of the magazine that the “specter of a post-truth world calls for a renewed commitment to truth telling.” They write that “telling the truth is more than a matter of thinking hard or having access to reliable information. It is also a matter of being a certain kind of person.” It involves having the humility to be corrected, and an openness to other perspectives. It means having the courage to let the light shine into dark places and expose the truth. And it means having the courage to confess the truth, even when it hurts, rather than doubling down on deceit. Jesus our light has come into the world; will we receive him?
After the commotion of last night’s celebration, today is a day for settling in, for quiet reflection, for asking ourselves, “What does all of this mean?” Here’s at least part of the answer to that question: the light that shines in the darkness, and that darkness has not and will not overcome it. Thanks be to God.
Greg Carey, “A World of Hope and Disappointment (John 1:1-18),” on the Huffington Post, December 29, 2014, accessed December 23, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/a-world-of-hope-and-disappointment_b_6390290.html.
Chi Luu, “The Collapse of Meaning in a Post-Truth World,” on JStor Daily, December 21, 2016, accessed December 23, 2016, http://daily.jstor.org/collapse-of-meaning-in-a-post-truth-world/.
The Christian Century, “The virtues we need in a post-truth world,” December 19, 2016, accessed December 23, 2016, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/virtues-we-need-post-truth-world.
Mitt, directed by Greg Whiteley (Netflix, 2014), https://www.netflix.com/title/70296733.
Sundays and Seasons, “Day Resources: Sunday, December 25, 2016: Nativity of Our Lord III: Christmas Day,” accessed December 23, 2016, https://members.sundaysandseasons.com/Home/TextsAndResources/2016-12-25/1765#resources.
Amy B. Wang, “‘Post-truth’ named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries,” in the Washington Post, November 16, 2016, accessed December 23, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/16/post-truth-named-2016-word-of-the-year-by-oxford-dictionaries/.