Finding Real Joy in the Darkness this Christmas

Light and Darkness

Christmas is a time of joy.  Both Isaiah (Chapter 9) and the Gospel of John (Chapter 1) use the imagery of light to describe Christmas.  Jesus came to dwell with us, showing that the light of God’s love pierces (Isaiah) and overcomes (John) the world’s darkness.  Because Jesus came, we are not abandoned to humanity’s bloody, vicious and unjust history of evil and sin.  Because Jesus came, this history does not have the last word.

Yet, I know that many people will feel acutely the darkness of the world this Christmas.  Maybe you are overwhelmed by tragedy, injustice or violence.  Or maybe you are feeling the pain of being separated from loved ones, by death or distance or broken relationships.

Christian thinkers from Augustine to C.S. Lewis have understood the darkness of the world not as a reality-in-itself, but as a privation or corruption in God’s good creation.  This helps me to understand my experience of the world’s darkness.  I feel it as the loss of things extraordinarily precious.  I believe that the pain we feel is often a recognition in loss of some good or dear thing that was but now is not, or that never was but could have been.

The story of Christmas does not ignore the darkness of the world.  If Jesus came to pierce and overwhelm the darkness, this is an acknowledgement of the darkness.  We ultimately see this at the cross, where the darkness of the world and the love of God are simultaneously revealed.

Real Joy

I want to talk about three possible responses to the light and darkness at Christmas.

One: We may try to embrace the light without acknowledging the darkness.  We do this when we try to act cheery to keep up appearances, all the while not acknowledging the real hurt and real sin in our lives.  This is not real joy because it is not based on reality.  It is all about maintaining a certain surface-level interaction with others that keeps us from going through the darkness of the world together.

Two: We could wallow in the darkness of the world without acknowledging the light of Christ.  Faced with the loss we experience in life, we might give into despair and give up the struggle against darkness.  We might begin to act as if there were no God who had come down into our darkness and given us hope to get beyond it.

Three: We could acknowledge both the reality of the world’s darkness and the greater reality of God’s love.  We may be feeling the darkness so acutely, yet even in the midst of our hurt, we can “turn our face toward gratitude and see truth and love everywhere,” to borrow a phrase from Texas bluesman Doyle Bramhall II.

What does this mean in practice?  I think it has a lot to do with prayer and faith.  In prayer, we give up our own hold on the darkness: we give our cares to God, we confess our sin, and we listen for His word to us.  In faith, we persevere in following Jesus as best we can in the face of the darkness surrounding us and in us.  We do what makes sense only if the God revealed in Jesus is the real God. 

However, in the end, we cannot do it ourselves.  We will fail.  In the end, we can only throw ourselves upon the grace of God, trusting that Jesus has indeed overcome the darkness.

I believe that it is in this way that we can pass between the poles of worldly cheeriness and worldly despair into real joy. 

To Those Who Are Hurting

For those of us struggling with the darkness this Christmas, hear the words of Isaiah 8:16-22.  Here, Isaiah acknowledges the darkness of the world before Christ has come.  He describes people in despair; they search for hope, but they cannot find it in the Earth.  In the midst of this, Isaiah models a hopeful waiting.  At Christmas, the time of joy described in Isaiah 9:1-7 will be here.  But it is OK to lament and hope with Isaiah before we celebrate with him.

“Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples.  I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.  Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.  And when they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God?  Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?  To the teaching and to the testimony!  If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.  They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry.  And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward.  And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish.  And they will be thrust into thick darkness.”