John’s telling of the Christmas story is rooted in the creation story and aims to make clear the cosmic significance of Jesus’s Incarnation as God’s response to both moral and existential darkness. John begins with the familiar words of Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning...” In Genesis 1, God creates all that is by speaking: “Then God said . . .” As God speaks, everything comes to be. In John 1, Jesus is described as the Word and, as John says, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Just as God spoke in Genesis 1 and light was created, in John 1 we read, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Matthew captures the same idea, though he associates it with Jesus’s ministry, when he quotes Isaiah 9: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16).
Each week of Advent, the church lights another candle in the Advent wreath. The closer we come to Christmas, the greater the light until finally on Christmas Eve (or Christmas Day) the Christ candle is lit; the Light of the World has been born!
The angels proclaimed to the shepherds that Jesus’s birth is good news of great joy for all people. God has come to us, to show us who God is, to remind us that he walks with us in our darkest hours, and to call us to walk in the light of his love. He came to embody the light that God brings to us—to demonstrate God’s compassion to the sick, to offer God’s mercy to sinners, and to teach us by his words and example how to live as children of the light. And then, in his death, he gave himself for us, demonstrating God’s self-giving love; by his resurrection, he pierced the darkness of death and grief, bringing humanity the light of hope and the promise that, as Frederick Buechner has said, “the worst thing is never the last thing.”
Later in his Gospel, John records that Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Still later in the same Gospel, Jesus says, “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them” (John 11: 9b-10). This is the point of Christmas. It is the celebration of light piercing our darkness, God’s light coming to us to enlighten our lives. We need not fear that we will stumble or become lost because we are no longer trying to find our way in the dark; we have the light of Christ by which we walk.
Many Christians are unaware that the reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 relates to this interplay between light and darkness, and the coming of Jesus as the light of the world. No one knows the precise day when Jesus was born. In the first century, Jewish people did not typically celebrate birthdays. Parents did not obtain government-issued certificates that recorded the date of a child’s birth.
Early Christians focused more on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Those events could be dated because they were connected to Passover, and dates for Passover can be calculated using a lunar calendar. As long as the crucifixion and resurrection were the emphasis, the date of Jesus’s birth was anyone’s guess. But over time, there was a yearning to celebrate Jesus’s birth as well, not simply to commemorate his birthday, but as a way of celebrating the Incarnation—the moment when God entered our world, when the light came to push back the darkness.
Not knowing the day when Christ was born, one day seemed most fitting: the winter solstice. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice occurred on December 25 according to the Julian calendar (the calendar of the Roman Empire and the West until at least the sixteenth century AD). Today, we use the Gregorian calendar and the winter solstice usually occurs on December 21 (and the 22 every fourth year). Why did early Christians choose to celebrate Christ’s birth on the winter solstice? Some would say it was to replace the pagan festivals as the empire was Christianized. It is true that people throughout history have celebrated the winter solstice with festivals. But I believe the real reason is that on this day, the heavens themselves proclaimed Christmas and the significance of the Incarnation. Up until the winter solstice, darkness and night increase for months, and daytime and light recede. But the winter solstice marks the turning point, where the heavens themselves declare that light has conquered the darkness. Light triumphs over darkness; daytime pushes back the night. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
God came to us, as one of us, to bring light into our darkness. He came to save us from ourselves—from our tendency to succumb to the darkness—to walk in the light and to take his light into the world. And he came to save us from the existential darkness that at times overwhelms us. He came to show that he walks with us through the dark, scary places in our lives, even through “the darkest valley” or as the King James Version has it, “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4).