Why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25? The Bible doesn’t give us a date for the event, but from what we do know, it was more likely that it occurred in the spring than the winter. For one thing, if shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night, it had to be lambing time, which was in the spring. In the wintertime, sheep weren’t watched out in the fields; they were kept in corrals.
For the first 300 years of the Christian church, nobody celebrated Christmas. But sometime in the fourth century, Christian leaders became concerned about a popular Roman festival. It celebrated the winter solstice, during the darkest time of the year, when the hours of sunlight began to increase again and light was victorious over darkness. In an effort to compete with the sun worshippers, Christmas was born.
This worked out perfectly because, really, there is no better time to celebrate the light of Christ shining in our world than in the bleak midwinter. Our days have grown shorter. We know what it’s like to live in darkness, literally. And we’re reminded of what it means to live in darkness figuratively, as well.
At Christmas we see the holy family in the stable, Mary exhausted, but radiant; the breath of the animals visible in the frosty night air. We hear the lowing of the cattle and the rustling of the straw. And we gaze at the long-expected child in the manger knowing that this isn’t just the stuff children’s Christmas pageants are made of.
Bethlehem was full of visitors that night because a power-hungry politician far away had decided to take a census as a way to establish how many people there were who could be taxed. In this case, the people weren’t counted where they lived; they were sent back to their ancestral hometowns. Beneath the sweet, tender birth story runs a tale of oppression, of a people at the mercy of a tyrant, a people enslaved by conquerors. We can dress it up with tinsel, with poinsettias, shining stars and angels, but it is a story of oppression and vulnerability, of injustice with little mercy.
The journey to Bethlehem, the risky birth in a barn, the flight into Egypt – tell us of the kind of world Jesus was born into: a world of violence, fear, and misery. Christ entered into a world of darkness.
Isaiah’s words ring true: “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light” (9:2a). The contrast of light and darkness existing side-by-side in the days leading up to Christmas is stark. While we are following the light of a star hovering over Bethlehem, we also are walking through the darkest days of the year. While we journey toward beauty and wonder, we carry the deaths of loved ones within us and grief grips our hearts. While we celebrate this special family holiday, we are painfully aware of the brokenness within our own families. While children experience excitement that they can’t contain, we worry about paying the bills so they can have a Christmas that doesn’t disappoint them. While we say the word merry over and over, we are bogged down with depression that can’t be drowned with glass after glass of Christmas cheer. While we toast one another’s good health, we know those who carry the burden of serious illness. Both darkness and light are a part of our world.
In his gospel, John writes: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). Notice what these words don’t say. They don’t say that the light comes into the world and destroys the darkness. That might be what we’d like to hear, but that’s not the way it works. Instead, the light comes into the world, and the darkness doesn’t snuff it out.
The darkness continues to be with us. In the 2,000 years since the birth of Christ, there is no less pain, no less meanness in the human spirit, no less heartache. The light hasn’t changed that. But the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness can’t overcome it.
Have you ever shone a light in the darkness and tried to put it out by adding more darkness? It doesn’t work. In fact, the darker it gets, the more brightly the light shines.
The point of Christmas is that God climbs into the darkest places to be with us. And because God is with us, because God’s light shines in the darkness of this world, including our own personal darkness, we have reason to celebrate.
People who walk in darkness: May you know hope, peace and joy this Christmas as you behold the light no darkness can overcome. It’s the light of God’s love shining through his son Jesus.