Scripture Passage: Genesis 1: 1-5
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day (and the longest night) of the year. This night that just ended in the wee hours of the morning was about 14 hours long in the southern part of the United States. If you live farther north, you had an even longer night. In fact, the northernmost parts of Canada and Alaska had less than 3 hours of light. (And winter has begun, so Happy Winter!) The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin “solstitium”, from two words meanings “sun” and “stand still”. Technically, this comes from the fact that during the days surrounding the solstice, the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky and then seems to have the same noontime elevation for several days in a row. To early astronomers, the sun appeared to hang in the sky, suspended, paralyzed, as if waiting for some word to move on.
So today we read the passage that speaks of the first light, the first time that the light was spoken into being. I think some people have this notion that nothing existed prior to that. But it did. God was there. God was there in the midst of what is described as a formless, disordered void, as darkness that covered and consumed everything as winds swept over the waters. There wasn’t “nothing”; there was a seemingly dark, chaotic, noisy something. And then God, in God’s infinite wisdom, spoke the light into being. And the light pushed its way into the darkness, parting the grasp on everything that the darkness had held. Now note that this isn’t the sun. (That came later.) Sometimes we make the mistake of reading this passage and we tend to think of the sun as the source of all light. But go back and read beyond the passage I showed. The sun doesn’t come into play until the “fourth day” of the passage so there must have been eons of time between when light came to be and the creation of this sphere of hot plasma that reflects it. The First Light was something different. The First Light was a new creation, parting and intersecting the darkness, weakening its grasp on everything, and shining into what was ahead. The First Light is what God created to lead the way to everything else.
It’s hard for us to get a sense of the profound sight of light dispelling utter darkness. We are seldom, if ever, in utter darkness. We have the benefit of moonlight and stars and streetlights and car lights and the glow of cities that never really sleep. Years ago I stepped into a small boat and floated through a glowworm cave at Doubtful Sound in Southwest New Zealand. (How odd, you say!) The cave was lit with artificial light that helped us maneuver our way to the deepest part of the cave. And then they shut the lights off. I have never been in darkness like that. It was the kind of darkness that almost hurt your eyes as your brain’s memories of light bounced off of it and back. There were no shadows, no rainbow-type rings around dim lights. There were no forms of anything (huh…it was “formless”, to refer back to the Scripture passage!). There was just darkness. My three friends and I were in this boat with two Japanese tourists and two German tourists. None of us spoke the other languages. When the lights went off and the darkness consumed us, our initial response was to reach for each other and hold hands. So, as I floated through this darkness in complete silence with only the sound of the water lapping at the boat, holding hands with my friend Debby and an older Japanese man that I had just met, As the boat turned down another tunnel, we got our first glimpse. It was only two or three or first but as we continued on, there were eventually millions of glowworms shining into the darkness. We could see the cave, the boat, each other. We sort of sheepishly dropped hands at that point as if we were somehow intruding into each other’s light. But what I realized is that you can only see the First Light when you’re in the darkness.
Sometimes the darkness is just too overwhelming for words. Even though this is a joyous season, the world is still hurting. There is still violence and tragedy. And for many of us in our personal lives, there is still pain of loss or hurt. Some of us are grieving someone that is not here this Christmas. Some of us are struggling with job loss or frustration or changes that we’re just not really ready to handle. And we are all living in this almost surreal time created by a pandemic that is scary and all-consuming. The promise of this season is not that there will be no darkness any more than the promise of this life is that there will never be sadness or grief or disappointment or depression or despair. Life is full of shadows and longest nights. Life is full of those times when we cannot see the light. Life is full of roads on which we cannot see where to go to return from exile. Life is full of poverty and destruction and terror. And life is full of those times when we’re so afraid, we just want to hold hands in the darkness.
But in the midst of the darkness, God dwells, unknown and mysterious, the Word that created and dwelled in the darkness even before light came to be. And even in our darkest places, the first light begins to break through. That, my friends, is indeed the message of the season. God tiptoes into the night and gently, very gently, hands us hope for our world, peace for our souls, and light for our longest nights in the form of a baby who shows us the way to walk through the darkness so that everyone might begin to see the world through a new light. When we are standing in the light, and we look at the darkness, we don’t see darkness. Light does that—it teaches us to see even through the darkness.
Maybe the reason we celebrate Christmas in the darkest week of the year is because for generations our ancestors have known that it is in the darkest darkness that we recognize the light of hope. So in the midst of a season of darkness and endings, we choose to celebrate birth and beginnings. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “when it is dark enough, [we] see the stars.” There is a Maori Proverb that says to turn your face to the [light] and the shadows will fall behind you. Look, my friends…the Light is beginning to break, dispelling the darkness around us. It is the First Light that shows us the beauty and leads us to everything else. And it is very, very good.
Too many of us panic in the dark. We don’t understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through to real light. (Sue Monk Kidd)
Grace and Peace,