Light in Darkness: John 1 and Hope of Christmas
At this time of the year, we can’t help but to notice the changing seasons. The air gets colder, and the trees lose their last leaves. In the coming month much of the country will have its landscapes dusted (or blanketed) with snow. Most noticeably, the world grows darker in the winter.
The darkness seems to envelop us at this time of year. For some of us this may give us a certain unease, and rightly so—the dark is a naturally mysterious and uncertain environment. Presented with the rhythms of nature, the Church has cultivated a spiritual interpretation to the darkness of winter, seeing in the darkness a place for Christ, the Light of the World, to enter into our lives. I wish to draw attention to two features of the Liturgy which can guide us in thinking with the Church during the winter months.
During December, the Church’s liturgical cycle places us in the season of Advent. It is a season of preparation and joyful expectation for Christ’s coming at Christmas. On Christmas Day itself, the Church selects the first words of John chapter 1 for her Gospel lesson. After four weeks of preparation, and the winter days growing darker and darker, she sings with joy:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1-5).
The darkness has not overcome the light. The Light, who is Christ, has entered our world of darkness. The Church’s words should give us pause—Our Lord is just a newborn child, not even a day old yet, and we boldly proclaim that the darkness has not overcome him! The infant Word of God has conquered the world simply by coming into it. The Incarnation of the Son of God is a definitive moment of salvation history. Everything before this was a preparation, because Jesus’s incarnate presence, God’s condescension to dwell among his creatures, is the perfection that the human race was made for. On Christmas Day, therefore, in the midst of the darkness of winter, our salvation is made known to us. It is illumined as if by a great light, and where before we could not see, the light has allowed us vision.
The same Christmas Gospel pericope continues “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:6-9). John the Baptist prepared the way for the coming of Jesus.
The Gospels make abundantly clear John the Baptist’s profound humility. When asked, he is quick to inform his listeners that he himself is not the Messiah. He says, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). As many know, the John is one of the few saints whose nativity, in addition to his day of death, is celebrated as a feast. We celebrate the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist six months before Christmas, on June 24.
Though this feast’s timing makes sense on the surface, since the Gospels specify that John was born six months before Jesus, some have pointed out a subtle message in the timing of these two feasts, the Nativity of John and the Nativity of Our Lord. The first is immediately following the summer solstice: from then on, the sun literally decreases as the days begin to get shorter and shorter. Christmas follows the winter solstice, when the darkness is at its greatest, but the light begins to increase. John the Baptist’s words, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” are made tangible to us through the natural changing seasons. In this way, the Church integrates her prayer with the created world, and invites us to meditate on Christ’s light overcoming our darkness, as pointed out by the humility of John the Baptist.
Connected Through Music
There is another beautiful, even if rather obscure, tradition which the Church maintains which can help us understand her thinking about the light of the World.
The Christmas season’s two most solemn feasts are Christmas itself and the Epiphany. These feasts are both endowed with special “proclamations” sung to the assembled worshipers.
On Christmas Eve, in many places just before the Midnight Mass, is sung the Christmas Proclamation. It is the solemn announcement of the birth of Jesus, placing it in a precise historical moment (“in the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the foundation of the City of Rome…”). It concludes, “Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man: The nativity of our lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh!” You can hear this beautiful announcement here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzmX1eo1P8Q
Epiphany has its own proclamation, the Proclamation of Moveable Feasts for the upcoming year. The Church sings to her beloved children, that as we have celebrated the Lord’s nativity, she can announce to them the dates of Ash Wednesday, Easter Sunday, Pentecost, and other moveable feasts. This tradition certainly dates from a time in which people did not have a calendar on their smartphone. But the Church considers it an act of worship to bring sing this announcement with joy. You can listen to the Epiphany proclamation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=G7vmUQndre4
One might wonder why June 25th, exactly six months before Christmas, was not chosen for the feast of John the Baptist. This is because the ancient Roman way of keeping time would have called June 24th “the eighth day before the beginning of July” and December 25th similarly “the eighth day before the beginning of January.”
What I wish to point out about both these rites are the chants to which they are sung, something which I first learned from Fr. William Rock, FSSP. The Christmas Proclamation’s concluding 2 line, “The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to the Flesh” breaks with the repetitive chant tone that comes before, and is strikingly sung to the same notes as when the Church announces on Good Friday, “The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to John.” On the other hand, the Epiphany Proclamation of Moveable Feasts is chanted in a way which mimics the Solemn Exsultet of the Easter Vigil, the praise of the Paschal Candle.
Even on the greatest feasts of the Christmas Season, when we would expect the Church’s mind to be occupied with the child Jesus at Bethlehem, she is already urging us onward to the even more solemn events of Holy Week and Easter. Indeed, the symbolic use of fire and light is extraordinarily prominent at Holy Week, and especially when the Paschal Candle lightens the darkness on Easter Eve! Here the Church gives us a subtle reminder: this same light which is entering our dark winter, will be executed on the cross. He will be extinguished. The sun itself will darken. “His own people did not accept him” (John 1:11) This is the very purpose for which he enters our world.
Yet, he will rise again victorious after three days, and his light will scatter the darkness triumphantly! “And we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The Church urges us to see the darkness of winter as a symbol of the darkness of our sinful world, and especially of the darkness which marked human history before the coming of Jesus Christ. At Christmas, we will hear of God’s light enlightening the world and overcoming that darkness. We are meant to reflect upon Jesus’ joyful birth, but also on the reason for which he was born, which was to suffer and die on the cross. The Church is almost playful in the way in which she arranges the details of her liturgical year. A conflation of the cycles of nature, the music sung, and the use of darkness, fire, and light allow us to make connections that can aid us in contemplating the mystery of Jesus Christ.
He is the light of the world. This winter, may we be able to experience the clarity and peace which can only be had when his light shines in our darkness.