The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Often enough, in conversational English, you’ll hear someone talking as if they have multiple personalities. “Part of me wants to get the day started and clean the house,” your friend will say, “but part of me wants to relax and sleep in.” When people feel conflicted about an important decision, the little “people” inside them seem to be arguing about it. “Part of me really wants to tell her off, but the sensible dad inside me would never allow me to do that.”
A friend of mine who was raised by a highly responsible parent has even named a part of herself by her mother’s name, and we talk about that dimension of her personality as if it were a distinct person inside her. And now that I’ve returned to seminary and been stimulated and challenged by immense life changes, changes that have prompted a lot of self-reflection, I’ve gone so far as to assign names to a couple of my own inner “people.” Simply naming them has shed some light on my own character and identity.
I’m a little abashed to admit this publicly, but I’ve named one of my inner selves “Simon,” after the little British cartoon I loved in the 1970’s about a child named Simon who escaped into a world of his own chalk drawings. “Simon” is the part of me that is intellectually curious, and he has had a very good time in the last few months, because seminary—for good and for ill—tends to reward the part of you that likes to study, the verbal and analytical part, the part that is hungry to learn.
A part of me I call “Andrea” is also enjoying the routine of seminary. She is a rule-follower, and she craves stability, responsibility, and respectability. Andrea typically drives me to get my work done, but during finals week she was also guilty of urging me to procrastinate by binge-watching “The Crown,” a Netflix show that, well, features someone very much like Andrea in the starring role.
There are parts of my inner self whom I do not know very well, and so, of course, I am more or less afraid of them. One of these, the scariest one, is the part, or the person, or the thing that whispers bad things to me in the night. It is the voice of shame. I sometimes call it “the Ghost of the Future,” alluding to the most terrifying of Scrooge’s night visitors, the one who foreshadowed death itself. I have a therapist who encourages me to cultivate a healthier relationship with these scary “parts,” and to appreciate their importance, and their value. I’ve been told that they might be less upset, and more functional, if I can be more understanding and accepting of them. Like you, like everyone, they lurk in the darkness of the inner self, the realm inside us that we know very little about, and typically avoid.
“The light shines in the darkness,” we proclaim today, “and the darkness did not overcome it.” Could we dare to hope that one of the darknesses the light penetrates is the darkness of our own inner selves, the unknown depths of our own psyches that we do not know, and habitually fear? Can God really shed light on that scary part of ourselves?
Sometimes we wonder, is there really a voice of reassurance in that dreadful night?
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This is one of the verses of the majestic song that opens John’s Gospel, a solemn prologue that re-tells the story of creation, and sings eloquently about the incarnation. The metaphor of light shining in darkness fits well not only as a psychological insight about our scary inner selves, but also at this dark time of year, at least in the northern hemisphere. It is also an apt metaphor for this time in history, and particularly in our nation’s history, when the darkness of discord and violence seems to be engulfing us. We confront (or we fail to confront) the darkness of senseless conflict; the darkness of injustice, such as the literal darkness of avoidable power failures in Puerto Rico; the darkness of the opiate epidemic in rural communities; the darkness of ignorance, and fury, and fear.
Again and again, we are invited by the opening song of the Good News according to John to place our hope in the light that shines in these many forms of darkness, even in the frightening darkness that looms inside the anxious human spirit.
In C.S. Lewis’s fantasy story, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” our valiant heroes face many frightening things, but nothing terrifies them as viscerally as the “Dark Island,” not a physical island as much as a stewing vortex of darkness that ensnares their little ship and subjects the crew to true-to-life projections of their worst nightmares. Imagine that: you’re standing on the deck of a ship under the bright blue sky, sunshine glinting from the waves of the sea, and suddenly you’re plunged into a dark whirlpool of horror, and your very worst fears begin to come true around you: humiliating embarrassments, devastating rejections, crippling losses, violent injuries, the stuff of your worst night terrors.
“The light shines in the darkness,” we sing today, as many times as we need to begin to believe that “the darkness did not overcome it.” One of the characters in Lewis’s novel, Lucy, heard a voice of comfort in the depths of Dark Island: “Courage, dear heart,” she heard the voice say. And sure enough, the ship was drawn back into the warmth and light of day.
John interrupts his song of incarnation with the voice of John the Baptist, a voice not only of comfort but also challenge. He was not the light, we are told, but he testified to the light, and he was quick to recognize in Jesus the One who shines even in our darkest places. Later in John’s Gospel we meet a Samaritan woman by a well at bright noonday, who discovers to her own shock that Jesus already knew all about her, as if he had been acquainted with her all along. And we follow Nicodemus out into the literal darkness of night, a darkness of privacy that protected him from ridicule for being a respected public official who initiated conversation with a disreputable figure like Jesus. Like Nicodemus, we are often slow to cotton on to what Jesus is saying, and who he is, and what he is doing in the world. And yet, like Nicodemus, we are drawn to the light we have trouble recognizing or understanding… or trusting.
But that light is right here. We meet Jesus not at a well, and not in a furtive nighttime encounter, and not on an island in a fantastical adventure story, but here, around this Table, and here, in our greeting of one another in peace. We find Jesus in the broken bread that makes this clutch of different people one Body. We find Jesus in the expression of acceptance and love on the face of our neighbor, searching alongside us for the light that can shine in her darkness. That light is right here.
As this old year ends, the new church year is young, and we are early in our annual journey that contemplates and celebrates the birth, life, death, resurrection, and teachings of Jesus. But our liturgical work here is not just a celebration, or a commemoration. This is not a passion play, or a year-long craft fair, or a reenactment of something that happened elsewhere, to other people, people like John and Nicodemus and the women and men who knew Jesus. No, our work here in this room is part of the shining of that light in the here and now. We bring into this room deep darkness, including the darkness of our own self-ignorance, anxiety, and grief, and the darkness of the tragedies and injustices of the world. Our celebrations here are what Karl Rahner calls “festivals of holy pain.”* They are expressions of our continual longing for light in the darkness, even as that light sparks into flame before us. And when we embrace one another here in peace, and gather around this table laden with broken bread and brimming cup, here, right here, that light shines.
Courage, dear heart.
* Theresa Sanders, Tenebrae: Holy Week after the Holocaust (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 20.
Preached on December 31, 2017 (the First Sunday of Christmas, Year B), at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Seattle.