Why Is Christmas Considered a Nighttime Event?

O Holy night! Yes, a silent night! And it came upon a midnight clear! Christmas, it would seem, is a festival of the middle of the night. Jesus is born when it is dark, dark midnight. We are sure of it. And why shouldn’t we be?

Even though we are not told the exact hour of His birth, we are sure it must have been at night. Scripture does say that the Shepherds who heard the glad tidings were keeping watch over their flock “by night” (cf Luke 2:9). Further, the Magi sought Him by the light of a star, and stars are seen at night, deep midnight. None of this is evidence that Jesus was born at 12:00 midnight but it sets our clocks for night, deep midnight.

Add to this the fact that Christmas is celebrated at the winter solstice, the very darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere. More specifically, Christmas comes when light is just beginning its subtle return. The darkest and shortest days of the year occur around December 21st and 22nd. But by December 23rd and 24th we notice a definite but subtle trend: the days are getting longer; the light is returning! It’s time to celebrate the return of the light. It’s going to be all right!

How fitting it is to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the true Light of the World, in deep and dark December. Jesus our light kindles a fire that never dies away. Indeed, in the dark hours of December, we notice a trend: the light is returning; the darkness is abating; the days are beginning to grow longer. It is subtle right now, but it will grow. And with the return of light, we celebrate our True Light: Jesus.

But light is best appreciated in contrast. We appreciate most the glory of light when the darkness assails us. There’s just something about Christmas Eve. As the time approaches through December and the darkness grows, we light lights. Yes, all through December we light Advent candles, more candles as it grows darker. Even the secular among us string up lights, in malls, on their houses, in their workplace. It’s as if to say, the darkness cannot win; the light conquers!

Lights show their true glory when contrasted with darkness. Who sees the stars in the middle of the day? Who appreciates the full beauty of light until he has experienced darkness? Yes, Christmas is a feast of the light. We confront the darkness of December and declare to it, “Your deepest days are over. The light is returning.” And we of faith say to a world in ever deeper darkness, “Your darkness cannot prevail. It will be overcome and replaced.” For although darkness has its season, it is always conquered by the light.

An atheist recently scoffed at me in the comments of this blog that our day is over; the world has rejected faith. Sorry, dear atheist friend, the light always wins. On December 22nd, the darkness begins to recede and the light begins to return. The light returns subtly at first, but it always does; the darkness cannot last.

Light has a way of simply replacing the darkness. In three months the equinox occurs and in six months the summer solstice, when we have the most light. Then the darkness will once again seek to conquer. But it always loses! The light will return. Jesus is always born at the hour of darkness’ greatest moment. Just when the darkness is celebrating most, its hour is over; the light dawns again.

We celebrate after sundown on December 24th, in accordance with a tradition going back to Jewish times (feasts begin at sundown the night before). Christmas morning is almost an afterthought. Most pastors know that the majority of their people come to Mass the “night before.” In a deep and dark December, a light comes forth. A star shines in the heavens.

We gather together in and on a dark night. We smile. We are moved by the cry of a small infant, by whose voice the heavens were made.

His little cry lights up the night. The darkness must go; the light has come; day is at hand.

We celebrate at night so as to bid farewell to the darkness. It cannot prevail. It is destined to be scattered by a Light far more powerful than it is, a Light it must obey, a Light that overwhelms and replaces it. Farewell to darkness; the Light of the World has come!

Jesus is the Light of the World.

The video below is a celebration of light. As a Christmas gift to myself I took the afternoon of December 22nd (the darkest day of the year) off so that I could photograph the triumph of light over darkness. I went to a mausoleum, a place where thousands are buried in the walls. But also in those walls are windows, glorious windows where light breaks through and Christ shines forth. Some of the most beautiful stained glass in the city of Washington, D.C. resides in that place of death and darkness. The light breaks through and it speaks of Christ.

This video shows only some of those stained glass windows (I am putting together a video of other windows to be shown later). The text of the music in this video is from Taizé, and it says, Christe lux mundi, qui sequitur te, habebit lumen vitae, lumen vitae (Christ, Light of the World, who follows you has the light of life, the light of life).

As you view this video depicting the Life of Christ, ponder that although stained glass begins as opaque sand, when subjected to and purified by fire it radiates the glory of the light which can now shine through it. So it is for us. Born in darkness but purified by Christ and the fire of the Spirit, we begin to radiate His many splendored Light shining through us to a dark world.

The Light wins. He always wins.

It’s Time to Shine or It’ll Be Over Soon – A Meditation on Being Called the Light of the World

lightIn the Gospel yesterday (Tuesday of the 10th week) the Lord describes what a Christian is and what He expects of us. He uses two different metaphors: salt and light. Yesterday’s post considered the metaphor of salt.

Today let’s consider the metaphor of light. The Lord says,

You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.

Much that can be said about salt can also be said about light. You don’t light light. It is the darkness that needs the light. Light is meant to be seen. There are too many undercover Christians, secret agent saints, and hidden holy ones. Jesus didn’t light our light to have it hidden under a basket out of fear or secrecy. He wants the Church to shine; he wants you and me to shine. He wants every Christian to be a light so that it’s like a city on a hill! He wants us to shine so that we can’t be hidden.

If we don’t shine, then the world is dark. This is because we are not just a light, we are (in Christ) the light. If you want to know why the world is in darkness, you don’t need to look very far. We often like to think that things are a mess because the wrong party is in power, or Hollywood is too secular, etc. But if we are the light of the world, then the world is dark because we are not shining the light of Christ. Light scatters darkness; it does not blame the darkness. This darkness has happened on our watch. As a Church we have been too content to hide our light under a basket. This is why the world is dark. If we collectively do our work, the darkness does not stand a chance. But too many—clergy and lay—are fearfully silent while the purveyors of darkness are loud and proud.

To all of this Jesus simply says, “You are the light of the world.”

Let’s look at some details of the light. Jesus goes on to say, Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father. Notice four things about this light:

The CAUSE – Notice that little word “let.” We are to yield to Christ, to allow him to shine through us. He is the cause of our light. Let your light shine. There’s an old Gospel song that says, “When you see me trying to do good, trying to live as a Christian should, it’s just Jesus, Jesus in me.”

The COST – The purpose of light is to shine, but there is no shining without burning. Shining costs us something. It may be Christ’s light but He shines through us. This means sacrifice on our part. It means letting him use us. It means not always sleeping when we want to. It means not just sitting at home and saying “Ain’t it awful.” It means getting out and getting involved. It means being “out there” and risking a few things. It means being targeted and visible. It means being identified with someone (Jesus) who is hated by many. And in a world that prefers the darkness to light (cf John 3:19-21) it means being called harsh, out-of-touch, and hateful. There is no shining without burning.

The CONCRETENESS – Letting our light shine is no abstract thing. Jesus speaks of deeds. It involves concrete behavior. Your light shines by the way you live, the choices you make, the behavior you exhibit. The light shines when Christians get married and stay married, stay faithful to their commitments, and are people of their word. Our light shines when we tell the truth instead of lying, live chastely instead of fornicating, and behave courteously and respectfully. It shines when we respect life; it shines when we stop our reckless behavior. Our light shines when we clean up our language, give to the poor, and work for justice. Our light shines when we refuse to view pornographic, violent or degrading materials. Our light shines when we love instead of hate, when we seek reconciliation and pray for our enemies instead of seeking vengeance. Our light shines when we walk uprightly and speak the truth in love, without compromise. That’s when our light shines.

The CONSEQUENCE – God is glorified when our light shines. We do not act or get involved merely to satisfy our own anger or to fight for our own sake. We are light so as to glorify God. It is not about our winning, it is about God shining and being glorified. Too often when we do get involved we merely seek to win an argument rather than to glorify God. We can get involved in order to be praised rather than to have God glorified. We need to pray for good intentions, for it is possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason. The desire result is God’s glory not our glory.

Pass the salt and turn on the lights! It’s time to shine or it’ll be over soon. It’s zero-dark-thirty. Are you ready to shine?