Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was, in his day, a renowned author and poet. He is not so well known now. In Christian circles, if remembered at all, it might be for his a poem entitled Christmas Bells, which was later set to music and became the carol that begins I heard the bells on Christmas day. If you are familiar with the carol and detect a sombre note in it, you have caught something of the spirit in which it was written.
On Christmas Day 1864, during the American Civil War, Longfellow received news that his son had been wounded in battle. Two years previously Longfellow’s wife had died in a tragic accident. Her dress caught fire from a candle, and, despite her husband’s best efforts to smother the fire, she died the next day from the severe burns she sustained.
Burdened by grief, Longfellow began to write. And Christmas Bells was the result. Two of the verses in particular highlight the acute tension of holding on to faith when circumstances seem to undermine it:
And in despair I bowed my head / ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, / ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song / Of peace on earth, good will to men.’
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: / ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; / The wrong shall fail, the right prevail / With peace on earth, good will to men.’
The distinguished American poet is not the only one to have spent a Christmas grappling with grief. Nor is he the last person to try and make sense of the seeming contradiction of a message of peace and goodwill in a world that seems filled with discord and malice, confusion and tragedy.
The tension drawn out in the nineteenth century carol is not as out of kelter with the spirit of Christmas as we might think. Rewind to the first Christmas and you might well conclude that there seemed to be very little peace and goodwill around!
There again that is where you might just expect to find God. In the darkness. Whether in the darkness of the evil intent of a psychopathic ruler or the darkness of personal grief and pain.
In one of his Messianic prophecies Isaiah describes the coming of Christ in terms of bringing light into darkness:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned (Isaiah 9.2)
If the incarnation of the Son of God teaches us anything it teaches us that God does not absent Himself from the darkness – from our darkness. Far from it. He enters the darkness in order to dispel the darkness.
What does that mean for us? How do we bring the light of Christ into our darkness?
Firstly, it is worth recognising that darkness comes in all sorts of different shades.
The darkness of uncertainty. The darkness of grief and pain. The darkness of guilt and shame. And you can name your own “darknesses”. Darkness, however, in none of its manifestations, has the power to extinguish the light.
John picks up the theme in his gospel:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1.5).
Secondly, darkness never has a divine origin but it can have a divine purpose.
That is not the same as saying God cannot work out His divine intentions through the darkness. Of course He can. And does.
If we are going through some kind of darkness, it is not because God wants us to be the darkness, it is because He wants us to learn to trust Him in the darkness.
Jesus’ brother James wrote:
God is light, pure light; there’s not a trace of darkness in him (1 John 1.5 MSG)
Finally, darkness is dispelled by turning on the light not by turning off the dark!
That is not exactly profound theology, but you would be surprised by how many Christians expend lots of time and energy on trying to turn off the dark. We try turning off the dark when we focus on it and try to develop ways to manage it. And all the time God is saying “Come to the light!”
Turning on the light requires both desire and decision.
Some years ago we were preparing for a carol service and we decided to turn out the main lights and leave the place candlelit. I asked the person who was organising the lighting how anyone would see in the relative darkness. He replied that our night vision would kick in once our eyes became used to the lack of light.
Sometimes we can become so accustomed to the darkness that it becomes a place of comfort.
We switch on the light when we decide to entrust ourselves to the light of the world and follow Him. He has promised to lead us. When you follow Him you will never walk in darkness – even if you feel the darkness.
Wherever you are at this Christmas. However dark it might feel around you. Be assured of this, God has entered the darkness. And He has entered your darkness. And however you feel, the light of the world has entered your gloom and is shining just where you are.