Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Christmas Eve: Isaiah 9.2-7
Some years ago, I wrote a prayer for one of my books in which I asked that in those times when we are so focused on providing hospitality to others that we neglect ourselves, God would help us to tend the pilgrim in our own souls “who longs for a welcoming fire and for shelter in the dark.” While the book was in production, I received a note from one of the folks who was working on it, asking me to change that line, as the publishing house avoided the use of language suggesting that darkness was bad.
I understood the concern, being familiar with the ways our culture has long equated lightness and whiteness with goodness, and darkness and blackness with evil. That’s part of what the book was addressing in the first place. With the title Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas, the book was something of a hymn to the deity who dwells in darkness as well as in daylight, the God who challenges us to search and know with all our senses and not just with our eyes, the Holy One who says, “I will give you the treasures of darkness, and riches hidden in secret places” (Isaiah 45.3).
I told the person at the publishing house that, committed though I am to finding the presence of God in the dark, I think it’s fair to want a little light sometimes, and to desire a place of shelter when shadows have fallen across the path.
I think it’s fair to want a LOT of light from time to time. I mean, it’s crazy, what’s asked of us: to live in a world, a cosmos, in which we know so little; to have faith that there is meaning and purpose and a sacred pattern in the chaos; to move forward without being able to see what’s ahead; to follow a God who lives in layers of mystery. It’s nuts for God to ask us to reach beyond our natural instinct toward self-absorption and attend to those around us, to extend hospitality to those who are strangers, to organize ourselves into functioning communities when history has shown us how difficult this is to sustain. How audacious, how wild of God to think we can even begin to do any of this.
And I think God knows this, too, knows how impossible it sometimes seems to live in this world that is strange and difficult as well as wondrous. And so God works to shine some light our way. In this season we celebrate God’s bright impulse in a big way, and with song and story and prayer and ritual we rejoice at the ways that God has illuminated our world. The passage from Isaiah that we read on Christmas Eve gives perhaps the most gorgeous words for what we celebrate on this day:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them has light shined….
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named Wonderful Counselor…
Prince of Peace.
The light that Isaiah speaks about: the light that breaks the yoke, the bar, and the rod of the oppressor; the light that consumes the trappings of war; the light that comes in the form of a child of peace: yes, God, more of this light, please.
It’s important to note that the texts that originated with our Jewish forebears, the texts that Christians usually call the Old Testament, can stand on their own. They do not take on meaning for the people of Christ solely by our reading and interpreting them with our Christian eyes. What Isaiah offers here are powerful words for those in darkness in any time, in any place.
At the same time it’s right that we in the Christian tradition find particular hope, solace, and meaning in these words on this day. The vivid, brilliant imagery of Isaiah undergirds and resonates with and gives poetic expression to the images and stories that we receive from the other texts that we hear this week. He prepares us to hear the astonishing story of what has come in the person of Christ. Isaiah reminds us that the longing for light is an ancient human longing. He assures us that in the presence of the darkness of this world—be it friendly darkness or foul—God is present, working to help us know God more clearly and to live together with deeper compassion, justice, and peace.
May the light that we celebrate this Christmas help us to see, to widen our vision to all the ways that God shows up in darkness and in the day. When you have need of it, may you find a welcoming fire and shelter in the shadows, and may we offer these in turn. Blessings to you on this Christmas Eve and all the days—and nights—to come.