Wonderful words from John’s Gospel. For me it marks the beginning of Christmas when I hear ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory’.
But what difference does it make? What do those famous words actually mean in the rough and tumble of our world? I struggled with this the morning after the Berlin murders. When twelve people were killed by a lorry smashing into a Christmas market. It was an horrific despicable act, of hatred and terror, aimed with tragic irony at the European nation which has done the most to rehome refugees. Looking wider we might well wonder, the bombings in Syria, the forgotten conflict in Yemen – do they seem to make a mockery of peace on earth and goodwill to all?
It makes me ask does the faith of John’s gospel actually have anything to say? Or are those beautiful words just helping us retreat into a safe Christmas bauble, a comforting gingerbread house from which we emerge (hungover) a day or so later to face reality?
As I’ve looked at this reading again, I’ve found much more than Christmas cliché. I’ve found a real and genuine hope that takes the brokenness of the world seriously but refuses to be overcome by it.
St. John tells us that there is truth, there is light. There is hope, goodness and love. They are rooted in the character of God from the very beginning. Realities grounded in him. They are fundamental to the creation of all things. So we are not directionless. Goodness and love are not a matter of opinion, of one’s person’s word against another. When darkness strikes we see all the more clearly what is right and true.
We know that in our hearts, don’t we? We all recognise truth and goodness when we see them. Even the existence of evil testifies to the primacy of good, because those who commit evil usually do so as a means to an end. Think of the policeman who shot the ambassador in Turkey – he shouted ‘remember Aleppo’. Those who do wrong like him, often do so because they are seeking a distorted, derivative idea of the good. So evil does not extinguish good – instead it points us to good.
Yes, there is darkness, and its power is sometimes very great. If we are honest with ourselves we know too that the darkness reaches into each one of us and spoils the goodness of creation. In our own strength we cannot be what we ought to be. But St. John calls us to hope. In verse 5: ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’.
Here John’s gospel points to Jesus. When I want to know what good is like, I look to him. I see Jesus’ compassion for the hungry and poor. His burning desire for justice and willingness to spend himself for the good of others. There is great beauty and challenge in his teaching, high aspirations but also loving forgiveness for those who have fallen short.
Above all though – and I think this is most compelling when we think about the suffering of the world – Jesus shows us that God is willing to be vulnerable. He lived and died on this earth as one of us. He suffered everything this world could throw at him: poverty, exclusion, pain. So whenever we are in that place, he can comfort us. He promises the final victory too because he absorbed all the evil and sin when he died on the cross – he allowed the darkness to do its worst on him and so exhausted its power. As they were crucifying him, he prayed ‘Father forgive’. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
We today can therefore live in a genuine hope. We can recognise the darkness in the world, but not allow it the victory. So if we wonder ‘how can we celebrate at Christmas against the background of Aleppo?’ I would respond: to quench the Christmas spirit would be letting the darkness win. Don’t switch off the fairy lights, or put out the scented candles, but do give to support those in need. Do give to Doorway for the homeless in Chippenham, and do enjoy your turkey!
Because to do so is to live in hope. This is why Christians who are refugees will be trying to celebrate Christmas with whatever they have. As they do so they bear witness that the light will one day conquer. We too can choose to live in the darkness or walk by Christ’s light. Of course the lights we carry in our lives may seem small or dim. We may wonder how our light can possibly make a difference. But a multitude of stars can make a constellation, and a thousand candle flames a great blaze of light. At Christmas God in Christ committed himself to this earth in hope. Will we too walk in his light of hope this year?