These are themes tackled by many an artist, many a composer. Not least among them is Haydn, whose great oratorio ‘Creation’ opens so dramatically with his setting of God’s first great sentence of command in creation: ‘Let there be light!’ Let there be light, says the Lord, on the first day of creation, Genesis chapter 1 - let there be light, and there was light. And God called the light day, and the darkness he called night.
In Genesis chapter 1 light is of the very essence of creation, it needs to be there before anything else can happen. The darkness before light is announced is uncreated disorder: in the new world that is made darkness will have its part, but it will be contained within clear limits, not to break clear of the bounds that have been set for it.
And a message repeated over and over in Scripture is that God’s people are to be children of light, children of the day, and to have no truck with deeds of darkness. But at this time of the year the light begins to seem weak and feeble, and the darkness around us gets really big and strong.
Light and darkness are great themes in the Gospel story as told by the apostle John, right from its very first verses. And the awfulness of darkness is made plain in his story of the eve of the crucifixion, a darkness Jesus must enter alone. As the Last Supper draws to its close, Judas gets up and slips furtively from the room. And as he leaves, John tells us in three words that ‘it was night’. And we know that the forces of chaos are mounting.
The cross is a place of new creation; by the cross we are newly created as God’s people, set free to serve him in a new way. There was darkness at noon, we’re told, on that first Good Friday; there was a deep and deadly darkness as Judas slipped from the room, and later in the Garden of Gethsemane as the guard arrived at dead of night to arrest him. This new creation will happen in the face of the terrifying reality of rampant, uncreated darkness.
We don’t cope well with the dark. And long before Christianity reached these islands our forebears had a deep and primaeval fear of darkness. They’d have been ready to believe the sun itself to be dying as the days grew shorter and colder. In pagan Rome the midwinter festival that early Christians took over to celebrate the birth of Jesus had been the feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, held just as the days began to lengthen again. In even earlier times maybe human sacrifices would have been made to appease the gods who were snatching away the light.
Now we’ve grown up, we understand the science, and those days are far behind us. But deep down we still hate the shortening days; our minds and bodies react to daylength in ways we can’t fully control. Darkness remains a persuasive metaphor for all that’s wrong and bad - all the stuff that hurts in our world. There’s bad news on the telly all the year round somewhere, but I know that I get more depressed by it when days are short and the nights are long.
We may not like to hear it, but bad news is my concern and yours, because as Christians we’re on the side of light. We’re to be light to the world, and what light does is contend with the darkness and overcome it. But unlike our Lord in whom there is no darkness, we have darkness and light mixed up inside ourselves. We strive to do good and be filled with light, but we’ve got our dark side, there are dark bits within the best of us. We need to face up to that: which is one reason why we don’t celebrate Easter without passing through Lent, or Christmas without these weeks of Advent.
For these weeks are given as a time for reflection and preparation - and in Advent especially to consider the reality of judgement. We know from Scripture we must account for our deeds. Speaking as someone who’s never good at getting ready for Christmas - shopping, card-writing, planning - I know how much I need Advent: not just to get all that stuff done, but more importantly to prepare myself spiritually, to welcome the child Jesus born in Bethlehem, and to be ready for his second coming in judgement.
Now while light is a good thing and something to celebrate, light can also be uncomfortable. It can be the light of judgement, light to expose the stuff we’d rather keep hidden. It can be the light that shines in the face of the one being interrogated, or the searchlight to pick us out as we try to sneak under the fence.
Christians differ in our understanding of the second coming of Jesus. For some it’s an event in future history, perhaps just around the corner; for others it’s a metaphor for what happens to each Christian individually at life’s close. But either way, it’s about being judged, which is something the Bible has a lot to say about. Jesus had a lot to say about being judged. We don’t like to be found out, but the Bible is clear on this: we shall be found out, that’s a promise, for we can hide nothing from God.
So the question I take into Advent is this: “How does what I give to Jesus compare with what I know he’s given me?” I need to be honest about my answer. As I prepare to celebrate the birth of the holy child at Bethlehem, I must also consider how I match up to the man that child became and his call to me to follow; how I match up to the cross on which he died, whose image I am called to bear. I’m called to be a child of the light; dare I live in light and rejoice in light and make light my home? Can I lose my fear of light exposing me, the real me being revealed? Advent is given to me and you as a time to set aside the works of darkness and to be clothed with light: may Christ our morning star dawn bright within us.