Christmas Day 2021
Christmas Day.21 “A World Mostly Irreligious, Pt. 2: The Darkness Doesn’t Get It” John 1
John is the master of the double entendre (pardon my French!). It happens too often in his Gospel to think it’s an accident or to imagine he doesn’t enjoy befuddling us with the apparent simplicity of his prose which was described by one church father as being like “a pool shallow enough for a little child to safely wade through, yet deep enough for an elephant to drown in…” The ocean at the end of the lane, right in your own backyard (even if you live a hundred miles from the coast 🙂
So translators have been befuddled with this simple sentence from our Gospel for Christmas Day: “The light shines in the darkness, and darkness did not “overcome it” as the ESV/NRSV has it. The NKJV has “the darkness did not “comprehend it”. Very different take! Which one is right? Well the answer is a Lutheran “Yes!”. The Greek is κατελαβεν a simple word that is literally “get hold of”. If we’d just translate it that way “and the darkness didn’t get hold of it” we’d catch both meanings. To “get hold of” something can be to seize or capture it, or it can be, more euphemistically, to “get it” in the sense of understanding it. So which does John intend? “Yes”! Both meanings are, in context, what John is saying…
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not get hold of it. But the darkness tried. Oh, yes. It tried its damndest to get hold of it. And failed on all levels. But the darkness is nothing if not resilient. And it keeps trying to get hold of the light which is the Incarnate Son of God—labors night and day to keep that light from overcoming the darkness it is and loves.
One of my favorite books is Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 classic “After Virtue”. It was fashionable, then as now, to fear we might be on the edge of a new Dark Age such as the West experienced when Rome fell in the early 5th century AD. MacIntyre’s book is delightful: “Oh, no worries about falling into a new Dark Age! We’ve been living in a Dark Age for a few centuries already!” MacIntyre’s provocative thesis was that only catholic (small “c”) Christians like Aquinas or Jane Austen can see how dark our age really is, because only they perceive ritely the Light of Christ. Or to put it another way: the darkest, dimmest age is the one that thinks it is Enlightened, Bright, Shiny.
You don’t win lots of friends by denouncing your world as a dark age dominated by dolts. Speaking for a friend! Murray Gell-Man received the Noble Prize for Physics in 1969. Upon receiving the prize, a reporter asked him if he, like Newton, had “seen further than others because he stood on the shoulders of giants”? Gell-Man thought for a minute and said: “No. If I have seen further than others it is because I am surrounded by midgets.” This only went over well with his friend Richard Feynman who recounts the anecdote in a most amusing way.
In the village of Olton in England’s West Midlands on October 2, 1873 a new English Catholic seminary was dedicated, St. Bernard’s. The preacher was Cardinal John Henry Newman, who had been an Anglican leader of the Oxford movement and jumped ship to Rome 30 years prior. You would expect the opening of a legal Roman Catholic seminary after nearly 300 years of Roman Catholicism being illegal in Great Britain would be an occasion to rejoice in what an enlightened, tolerant, bright, sunny age he was living in. What a time to be alive! But that was not Newman’s mood.
He said: “I know all times are perilous, and that in every time serious and anxious minds, alive to the honor of God and the needs of men, are apt to consider no time as perilous as their own… Still I think that the trials which lie before us are such as would appall and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius or St. Gregory the Great… For Christianity has never yet had the experience [as we do now] of a world simply irreligious.”
What Newman meant was that while there were many pious Christians (even his former Anglican friends and current co-religionists) still: a world that denies not only that Jesus Christ is God, but that there is no God or gods, nothing luminous, divine, or transcendent but only a brutal Darwinian world of chance and the brutal struggle for the survival of the fittest (or meanest?). Ancient paganism was bad, but at least there was an ethos there, Donnie, that thought divine power both made the world and destined it for the glorious End of enjoying God eternally.
I think Newman’s assessment that our age is perhaps the darkest of the dark (and getting darker) is not far off. But I think he was wrong in thinking it has not all happened before. Romans of the 2nd and 3rd centuries (like Marcus Aurelius and his pals) did not believe in God or gods creating, guiding, or ruling the universe to the end of eternal delight for all God’s creatures in His glory. They were probably more Darwinist than Darwin (an Anglican buried as a member in good standing of that communion 😉 They made Nietzsche look like a Lutheran Sunday School teacher. Aurelius’ Stoic pals saw nothing but a brief, random, purely material life on earth where the will to power, to dominate as long as you can before you die and everything goes dark is all there is…(!)
John does not think that a vague theism (like Thomas Jefferson’s—another Anglican buried with that church’s full honors 😉 counts as “religion”. Religion is believing “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word is God and all things were made by him.” God is Light and God was born a man at Bethlehem nearly 2,000 years ago today, but the world didn’t get IT. Because men preferred darkness to the Light, because their deeds were evil.
He came to his own and his own people did not receive him (with only a few exceptions like his shepherd cousins, Mary, Joseph, the Apostles, and their little circle of friends). In fact, the world crucified Jesus(!) to put out the Light once and for all and—for three dark days—it looked like they’d succeeded…
If can look like that, to many, today. A dark age insists it is Enlightened; and the great mark of this enlightenment is [supposedly] to be sure that the Religion which claims Mary is Mother of God, commands the worship of Jesus as the one true God is the real threat to the good life, public health and safety such that shutting that down entirely is Real Progress. [Sure glad that never happens today in our world!]
Still, John proclaims: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not gotten hold of IT (and never will). But to those who receive the Christ, the babe of Bethlehem, as Yahweh, as God, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God—to get hold of Him as He gets hold of us by His cross.
Believing that this little baby, Mary’s son, is the true and eternal God—one substance with the Father by whom all things were made, whose life, death, and resurrection give Light and Life to all—this is the spark that gets the Light going in you! It is a faith much suppressed and mostly derided. And the darkness continues to have much success in overshadowing IT.
Yet… the darker the background, the brighter the Light! Those who are not too proud to kneel and adore the babe of Bethlehem as Lord, God, Savior get the greatest gift: the Light and Life of Heaven. Merry Christmas! Amen.