The Light Shines in the Darkness

It helps to remember under what circumstances it happened. The nation was occupied by a hated foreign power. Reminders were all around, a part of daily life: soldiers garrisoned in the cities and around the countryside, heavy taxation imposed, even on poor people, to finance the occupation. The holy temple, the presence of which reassured the people of their chosenness, their God’s sovereignty and strength and protection, was powerfully reduced by the occupiers’ disdain for the temple and everything the people held dear, everything that gave them identity and told them they were valued and loved.

Prospects were even less promising for the two of them. Publicly engaged to be married, sealed by a signed covenant, living apart according to both custom and law, perhaps at most catching a glimpse of each other in the marketplace: she a shy, cloistered teenager, he older, in his thirties. Without warning tragedy strikes. She is pregnant. She hasn’t even been near her betrothed and suddenly, inexplicably, she is going to have a baby, a baby that is certainly not his. He is perplexed, his pride severely wounded, embarrassed, publicly humiliated. His young fiancée is pregnant, not by him, and everybody knows it. There are dreams and angel voices and somehow he makes an extraordinary decision. He marries her. He takes upon himself whatever has happened to her, whatever she has done. He literally saves her life.

Months later, to make matters infinitely more complicated and difficult, they are ordered to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey of several days on foot and donkey, for a taxation census. By this time she is heavily pregnant. When they finally arrive in Bethlehem her labor begins and proceeds to fruition and she delivers a baby, a son, in the only shelter they could find, a cow stall, and his first cradle is the cow’s feed box, a manger.

There were indications, to be sure, that this was no ordinary birth. Rough, illiterate shepherds show up in the middle of the night babbling incoherently about an angel and a heavenly choir in the night sky. Mystics from the East arrive speaking about a star. And not long after, Herod, Rome’s puppet King, hearing threatening rumors of the child’s birth, orders all the infants in his hometown slaughtered.

It helps to remember how poor they were, how vulnerable, how helplessly subject to the whims of powerful people who neither knew nor cared about them, how virtually hopeless their situation and they themselves were.

I need the reminder this year more than ever. I have seriously tried to adjust to what happened on November 8 and the President-elect, despite his resounding loss by three million, telling myself that this great and resilient nation has withstood a lot over more than two centuries, that our precious values are still in place and our historic institutions are still strong. Ever the optimist, I told myself that in spite of the despicable vulgarity, the bullying, the atrocious insensitivity, the arrogant ignorance and outright dismissal of American history and American institutions, wise advisers would emerge and be called upon and wise heads would prevail. It appears that my optimism is not warranted. Cabinet nominations have called into question programs that reflect values I always thought were deeply and profoundly American: Liberty and justice for all, equal opportunity under the law, and a unique commitment enshrined in our very founding documents to the common welfare, the common good of the nation and all its citizens. We may end up with a HUD Secretary who doesn’t believe in the mission of HUD, an Energy Department head who wants to abolish the Energy Department, an Education Secretary who doesn’t much believe in public education – the very foundation of our culture and democracy, and an Environmental Protection Agency leader who thinks climate change and global warming are just fine. It is difficult to be hopeful.

But – Christmas. Christmas comes again with its reminder that the baby was born in the midst of despair and hopelessness, that love – God’s own love – came down to live among us, that God assumed for God’s self everything that characterizes and defines our humanity, our hopes and our fears, our deep gladness and our anxiety. Christmas reminds us of all the stressful, frightening, depressing situations and circumstances in which the birth has been celebrated across the centuries and how somehow, regardless of the dreadful circumstances, the celebration of that birth long ago gave birth, time and time again, to compassion and generosity and kindness and justice and hope.

Thank God for Christmas 2016, and its reminder that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome the light.

Nor will it ever.


  1. Carol Carpenter says:

    Thank you, John!

  2. LLANI OCONNOR says:

    John Thank you so very much for this. Like many of us, I have struggled and continue to struggle about what to do and now find myself on the Steering Committee of the St Petersburg Women’s March. My job is to form alliances and so I am door-knocking. I am particularly concentrating on the African American community – not because I know so many people (do know some) but our group (less than 2 weeks old) is “lily white” and that bothers me…we MUST be inclusive. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Llani

    LLANI O’CONNOR 312.952.9379


  3. This is beautiful. I did struggle with one phrase — about this “great and resilient nation . . . (with its) precious values.” And that is because I am listening harder these days to those who make me look at the darkness in our history. Slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, assassinations of leaders in other countries, torture openly advocated not that long ago. Perhaps part of what we’re being asked to do now is to look at our surface values — the American version of Pax Romana, and recognize that like Rome, the goodness was always predicated on the oppression of the weak, and blindness to their plight.

  4. Susan Redfield says:

    Thank you so much for your ever inspiring, always compassionate, wondrously insightful reminder of holding to the good and hopeful. Love to you and your family.

  5. Ann Frontain says:

    Very comforting , John

  6. Ann Frontain says:

    Nancy Forshey Nuckols. In Hopkins;severe heart attack before Xmas. On ventilator. Infection; dialysis ; weak heart; clogged arteries. Not sure she will survive much longer. I will be with nieces and nephew tomorrow at Hospital Ann Forshey FRontain

    Sent from my iPhone


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