Light Shines in Darkness: The Christmas Mystery

“You must look at the Child in the manger. He is our Love. Look at him, realizing that the whole thing is a mystery. We need to accept this mystery on faith and use our faith to explore it very deeply. To do this, we must have the humble attitude of a Christian soul. Let us not try to reduce the greatness of God to our own poor ideas and human explanations. Let us try to understand that this mystery, for all its darkness, is a light to guide men’s lives.”

Christ is Passing By, no.13

“Beloved: The grace of God has appeared” (Ti 2:11). The readings for the Mass of Christmas night highlight several appearances: from Isaiah, a light has shone; in St Paul, The grace of God has appeared; in St Luke’s Gospel, the angel of the Lord appeared, followed by a multitude of the heavenly host. All of these astonishing appearances occur because of the revelation of the human face of the Son of God: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).

Where the appearances happen and to whom they come are very instructive: angels to shepherds in a field by night, light to people who sit in gloom and darkness, the grace of God and the light of the Gospel reach those in need of mercy and hope. In the mystery of His birth, the Lord teaches us that He can reach those places in our lives most in need of redemption. There is no corner so dark, no place within us so disordered and weak, that Jesus cannot come as Lord to save us.

This mystery, as St Josemaria hints at above, could be summed up in a golden sentence of St John’s prologue: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). At times when we might feel trapped or frustrated by our circumstances, embracing this truth will enable us to better appreciate why the Lord deliberately chose these inconvenient circumstances for His birth. Looking at the Child in the manger, and the trust He inspires in those near and far, helps us to see what the mystery of Light-in-darkness can accomplish in our lives.

Contemplating Bethlehem, we cannot pretend that it all makes sense or even that we would have chosen the same conditions for our own birth. That any child should be born in a place where animals gather for eating and sleeping is outrageous. We should see the circumstances of Christ’s birth as outrageous and yet chosen by Him—and hear the Spirit saying through St Paul: These things happened for our instruction (cf. 1 Cor 10:11). Christmas makes us witness the grace of God at work in unsuitable, even outrageous, circumstances so that we will never close ourselves off to God’s ways, and never lack the trust we need to follow them.

When misfortunes come, when mistakes and even tragedies happen, it is very tempting to become absorbed by the evil or injustice—and even to give up. What could be more wrong than refusing lodging to a pregnant mother about to give birth? It’s not always clear to us what is being accomplished when God permits adversity and hardship. But Christmas sends the unambiguous message that He is still at work: “For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed” (Wis 1:14-15).

Whenever I celebrate Mass for inmates at juvenile hall on Christmas day, I always find myself focusing on these things in my homily. Prison is the last place that anyone would want to spend Christmas. Prison is also the last place where one would expect to find joy and peace. No one comes to prison by choice; they are sent against their will. Nor do any go in order to find God, or even forgiveness. And yet, I often tell the young people there: That is why God has brought you here. God tripped you up, and God makes no mistakes.

Stories are told about saintly Christians confined for years in concentration camps or in prisons who have found the Lord there in ways they never had before in their freedom. The prison is still a prison. The Christmas stable and the manger are still a cattle shed and a trough and nothing more. What makes all the difference is our receptivity to the mystery of God’s will, of His inscrutable action in our lives—especially in those places that are dark and problematic. Without demanding to understand, we trustingly walk in the darkness of this world with only one light to guide us: “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).

A lack of clarity about some important aspect of our lives, such as making a serious decision, can paralyze us. At times we can feel almost overcome by some apparently insurmountable obstacle, or discouraged by an unforeseen setback. But more than clarity and certainty, the Lord wants us to have unbounded trust—enough so that we will ask for His light and then continue confidently on our journey, not waiting until things start making sense, but stepping out onto the path He opens for us, assured of His guidance and presence.

On Christmas night we see the Holy Family traveling to Bethlehem “in the dark,” i.e., without assurance of lodgings. We see the shepherds rushing to the stable on the strength of a heavenly promise. When you trust in the Lord, the mystery is no longer to be feared, but followed. Even if we cannot comprehend the plan of God’s saving actions, yet confident faith moves us to “try to understand that this mystery, for all its darkness, is a light to guide men’s lives.”

In fact, the day after Christmas the Church powerfully applies this truth in celebrating the martyrdom of St Stephen. As St Stephen was breathing his last, offering up his spirit and forgiving his enemies, Saul was standing there taking it all in. At first, the zealous Pharisee was unimpressed. As far as he was concerned, Stephen was just one less Christian he had to deal with. Meanwhile the early Christians were grieved at losing such a holy man from their company. But the seeds had been planted; the impression had been made. And at least in terms of the scope of his missionary activity, there would be no greater Apostle than the convert St Paul.

Go to Jerusalem and see. Go to Bethlehem and see. See Stephen falling to the ground like a seed and Saul rising up like a righteous shoot. See shepherds and angels gathering around a cattle shed, faces to the ground, in adoration. After the birth of our Savior in a stable around the back of a crowded inn, people can never again doubt the presence and providence of God: “…even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee” (Ps 139:12).

When we bow over the manger on Christmas, and pray before the Infant, we are in the best position to show our openness to His ways and designs, and to cast away all of our human prudence. By affirming all of the circumstances of His first coming, we show that we are ready to accept Christ as He comes into our lives now, in sometimes unexpected ways. We show that we “approve” of His choices, that we adore His will, that we are happy to be the children of such a God: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12).

We know how challenging it can be for us to serve such a God. We like to be in control—in control of our joys and sorrows—to follow a map of our own making. Christmas teaches us to surrender that control, because as we journey between the beautiful and sorrowful events of this world, the same Lord whose glory shined in the obscurity of a village stable, is ever taking our moments of light and darkness and making of them our path to glory.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community's seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms , Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith and Scatter My Darkness: Turning Night to Day with the Gospel. Father's latest book is Coached by Josemaría Escrivá (Scepter Publishers 2023). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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