In my area, there’s one street that draws thousands of visitors every year. When the sun goes down, the neighborhood fills with people who come to ooh and aah over the spectacular display, and the line of cars backs up all the way onto the freeway. At some homes, I imagine, the electric bill for the month of December is more than my total bill for the year–which is still nothing compared to the family that won the reality-TV competition The Great Christmas Light Fight with their massive display of a million or so lights.
I can’t quite identify where the line between Wow! and You’ve got to be kidding! gets crossed. But to me, it’s a bit like eating cheesecake. One bite is delicious. One slice is still good. But two slices? A whole cheesecake? There can be too much of a good thing.
Still, this year I’ve been thinking about not just Christmas lights, but Christmas light, the fact that the metaphor of light plays a prominent role in the Christmas story itself. One might, for example, think of the terrifying brilliance of the angelic host, blazing with the glory of God before a startled group of shepherds (Luke 2:8-15). Even before that, however, Luke narrates how Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, prophesies about the Messiah whom John will herald:
Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace. (Luke 1:78-79, CEB)
As with the angels, who shine with God’s glory, so too will the Messiah represent the presence of God among those who live in darkness and the shadow of sin. A similar metaphor can be found in the prologue to the fourth gospel, which is as close to a “Christmas story” as the apostle John gets:
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 into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 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. (John 1:1-5, NRSV)
Light versus darkness, the glory of God come to a world benighted but unaware. As Lesslie Newbigin and others have insisted, that theme is central to John’s telling of the story: Jesus is the one who stands in the temple treasury and declares “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12, CEB).
And as soon as he says it, the Pharisees declare his words invalid (vs. 13). Some believe in him and he offers them freedom, but they take it as an insult to their ancestral heritage (vss. 31-47). His opponents sling ethnic slurs and call him demon-possessed (vss. 48-52). And at the end of this ugly spectacle, they pick up stones, ready to execute him on the spot for blasphemy (vs. 59).
Darkness indeed. But, John tells us, with the clarity of post-resurrection hindsight, the light of God has come. The darkness will not win.
And perhaps the best way to celebrate Christmas light is to be mindful of our calling to be light. More on that in tomorrow’s Christmas Eve post.