The Light of the World

Night grows long this time of year. Back on June 21st, the summer solstice, daylight stretched more than four hours longer each day than it will through this month of December. I often wonder how people living much further from the equator than us manage through the long, dark days of winter. In Barrow, the northernmost town in Alaska, residents have not seen the sun at all since November 16th – and won’t see it again until January 23rd, 2023. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, these are dark times.

And so, going back to at least 336 CE (the date for which the first written record of a December 25th Christmas holiday exists), Christians have chosen the winter solstice – the darkest time of year – to celebrate the coming of Christ. Was Jesus actually born on December 25th? We don’t know. But based on the Gospel of Luke, it seems unlikely. We read in Luke of shepherds watching their flocks by night when Jesus was born. And on a cold and rainy Judean December, shepherds would likely have kept their flocks sheltered at night. December would also have been an odd choice of months for a Roman emperor to conduct a census – like the one that led Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.  Low temperatures and poor road conditions make winter an inopportune time to gather people for a population count.

But whether or not December 25th marks the actual birthday of Jesus, I can see why that date has stuck. The darkest, coldest time of the year reminds us of our need for the one who said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12). If you are going to light candles and sing “Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light,” what better time is there to do so then when the night seems to stretch on and on? The darker it is around, the clearer the light of one small candle becomes.

In many parts of the world, those who consider themselves Jesus followers are still a small minority – a few candles keeping a 2000-year-old flame alive. In regions where Christianity is more widely practiced, large percentages of the population still consider it a relic of history. And since ancient times, people have too often obscured the light by attaching Christian symbols to groups or efforts at odds with the actual life and teachings of Christ. Jesus called upon his followers to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” But some days, that light can seem like a few candles burning in an ocean of night.

So, each year, on the darkest of days, and whether our numbers be large or small, we gather to hear these words again from John’s Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) This and every Christmas, we remember how even in times of war and disease, the light of God’s love for the world in Christ continues to shine.  Whether or not it was Jesus’ actual birthday, we will gather on December 25th – and on Christmas Eve.  We’ll read and sing of the coming of Christ.  And we’ll each hold a candle, trusting in the one who is still the light of the world.

~Pastor Matt