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The Light that Shines in Darkness

It was the 26th of December, the second day of Christmas by the traditional reckoning, and I’d spent the balance of it on the couch, nursing the cold I’d sustained thanks to late nights and early mornings and running out barefoot onto the frost-touched grass for just one more branch of holly. But I couldn’t have been happier—behind me, a glad and golden Christmas Day crowned with laughter and the faces of those I love; before, a long week of indolence punctuated by last-minute gatherings with friends and small flurries of merrymaking.

There was a kingly sunset that night; we watched it over our tea with growing delight as it deepened from a glitter of gold among the pines through every shade of apricot and orange into a fiery splendor of crimson, spanning the pale sky in streaks of wild color. The finest sunset of the season, we said, and a glory that reminded us with joy that this was just the second of twelve glad days. And then, just as the last flame had vanished from the sky and the animals patiently gathering down by the barnyard fence told us it was time to pull on our overalls and get into our coats for the nightly ritual of bedding down, the lights flickered and went out, leaving us in the candlelight of the two tapers on the coffee table and the cheery glow of the Advent wreath in the window.

“This should be interesting,” Philip said with a grin. “And kind of neat.”

With one of my candle lamps and the two holly-trimmed hurricane lanterns from the front walk, we made our way across the darkened lawn with our dog frisking in the shadows and a waxing gibbous sifting a thin dusting of silver over our way. The animals all greeted us at the gate as usual. But they were unnerved by the darkness of their comforting barn. And the sheep, at least, were none too sure of the wavering lights we bore to dispel it. We hung the lanterns in the stalls as we worked, from the hay drops and perched atop mineral boxes, and I sang and spoke low to the frightened darlings as they alternately followed me as a body and dispersed in sudden panic. The goats were fine once they realized that grain was still forthcoming and hay was in the offing, and they munched some of their Christmas apples with as unperturbed a satisfaction as ever, their breath showing in fragrant puffs by the light of the lantern. But the sheep were too terrified to enjoy their evening repast, dropping their loved apples down into the straw untasted to be trampled underfoot by the others.

I caught an image of our terror of the holy, even when it's couched in perfect love. Lanier Ivester

What a parable, I thought. The Light shineth in the darkness. And, according to my sturdy old King James, the darkness comprehended it not. Other renderings of that verse tease manifold nuance from these mighty words: the NIV tells us that the darkness has not overcome; according to The Message translation, the Light simply couldn’t be put out. But “comprehended it not” lends a poignancy often overlooked in all our joyous affirmations of hope this time of year, foreshadowing the heartbreaking statement with which the passage proceeds: “He was in the world, and though the world was made by him, the world did not recognize him.” A Light, in this sense, not only incomprehensible, but feared. I’ve often heard it said that the first words out of an angel’s mouth when greeting a human being were always, “Fear not!” And watching my poor frightened flock, I caught an image of our terror of the holy, even when it’s couched in perfect love.

I knelt down in their midst, calling to them softly by name, soothing and stroking as they drew near, a ring of lovely ovine faces illumined by the glow of the lanterns, their tender eyes and smooth velvet noses blooming out of the murkiness beyond. And then I was struck by another image altogether, a picture so precious I caught my breath and smiled. This is what the barn must have looked like on the night of Jesus’ birth, perhaps the light of an oil lamp scattering the shadows of the stable rude and lighting up the faces of the friendly beasts that gazed with wonder alongside shepherds and Mother and Father. That sweet tilt of Hermia’s head, so gently touched with gold, went to my heart, as did the soft muffle of Benedick’s breath in my ear and the rustle and clucking of a hen in the next stall. It all just gave me such a moment of transport, a flicker of knowing.

Let us go then, even unto Bethlehem…

The barn was beautiful by candlelight. And even though the animals protested noisily when we took the candles away (any light was better than none!), we came merrily back across the lawn, lanterns swinging, to the music of utter silence in the world around us. Wrapped in an almost heavenly calm.

I was even a little sorry when the lights came on a few hours later.

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