© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Have you stopped to remember what it felt like to open Christmas presents last year on Christmas Day? Honestly, it’s hard for me to recall it. So much of our holiday observances, including how our family gathers in the living room and takes turn passing out gifts and ripping off the paper, is a ritual we perform every year. This year, so much of that ritual has been taken from us that it’s hard to remember what it felt like to go through those holy gestures even just twelve months ago. Christmas 2019 really wasn’t that long ago, but it feels like an age has gone by since then.
Do you remember what it felt like to be a week away from a new year, standing on the threshold of all the possibility and promise that 2020 held? Perhaps you remember reading this time last year a reflection from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times about how 2019 had been the best year in human history. His point, of course, was that despite all of the political rancor, environmental degradation, racial injustice, and wealth stratification, which usually hold our collective attention, worldwide metrics of health and prosperity had all moved in the right direction. Infant mortality was the lowest it had ever been. Life expectancy was a long as it had ever been. The number of people living in extreme poverty was as small as it had ever been. Debilitating illness and disease were as scarce as they had ever been. The literacy rate was as high as it had ever been. Still, despite all the empirical evidence, you would be forgiven for thinking this time last year that 2019 had been a whirlwind of chaos. What do you think about that now? I wonder what we would say to ourselves if we could go back in time.
In the year that Jesus was born, how do you think people in Palestine would have thought about the year that they had just had? Although my “research” is as sophisticated as a few Google searches, it seems that all the metrics we would point to as evidence of a fabulous 2019 pointed to a life of challenge beyond anything we could imagine. Infant mortality is estimated to have been as high as 30%. That means that one in three children did not live to see their first birthday. That had a profound effect on overall life expectancy, of course, which was only twenty to thirty years, but good news: if you made it to the age of fifteen you could probably expect to live to see forty-five or fifty.
Poverty meant something radically different back then. There was no middle class. You were either wealthy enough to own land, or you worked for a subsistence wage every day until your body gave out. If you didn’t have a job or a family to take care of you, you begged each day, hoping that you could afford enough calories to prevent your body from cannibalizing itself.
Politically, the prospects for the Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine were not any better. From time to time, a zealous leader would stir up a rebellious force to challenge the authority of the empire, but they were always put down with both haste and brutality. Although the historical record is not fully reliable, around the year that Jesus was born one such rebel, Judas of Galilee, was said to have organized a revolt against the mandated census and the imperial tax that it would bring. Whether true or not, there is no doubt that anyone who had joined such a plot would have been arrested, tried, and executed, likely by being nailed to a cross.
In the midst of such overwhelming struggle and hopelessness—surrounded by seemingly unending darkness—it is hard to imagine anyone thinking of the year when Jesus was born as the best year in human history. But I wonder what Mary and Joseph thought. I wonder what Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, the forerunner and herald, thought. I wonder what those shepherds on that hillside thought. Surely those who caught a glimpse of God’s salvation coming into the world recognized the power and brightness of that light even if it only came in a small, faintly glimmering hope in an otherwise cold and dark world.
That is the nature of God’s salvation, which comes into our lives yet again this day. Like a single candle or cell-phone flashlight exploring the corners of your house when the power has gone out at night. Like that first, faint glow on the eastern horizon at dawn, when the sun’s rays are not yet streaming down on us directly but only illuminating by reflection the atmosphere above us. Like the light of this week’s planetary conjunction, when the faint but clear glowing of Saturn and Jupiter came together not nearly bright enough to light up the night but still steady and strong enough to reach us from a billion miles away. In the midst of what feels to so many of us like an unending darkness, God’s light shines. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmas, is God’s salvation coming into the world. It is God’s great reordering of human history. It is God’s inauguration of the reign of justice, freedom, and peace. And in it the full grandness of God comes to the earth in a tiny, gentle, barely-noticed way. Yet the power of that steady, small light is enough to shine brilliantly into the darkness, bringing hope and love and promise in ways that can never be overcome.
God’s light does not come and shine so brightly that it pushes us away, forcing us to hide our faces and cover our eyes. It does not come so brightly that we are blinded by its startling power. Instead, it comes in ways that beckon us in, drawing us closer and deeper into the love of God. Our salvation is not manifest in a divine power that comes and obliterates our struggles but in the divine presence of the Word-become-Flesh, who enters into those struggles alongside us in order that we might receive that light and know its gentle, persistent, and unquenchable saving power.
No matter how difficult things become—no matter how dark the darkness may be—always remember that God’s light shines in that darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.