“Oh Holy Night!” These familiar opening words to one of our best loved Christmas carols alert us to a key paradox of Christian faith; specifically that Jesus, the Lord of Lords, chose to be born not in a palace, but rather a stable; not attended by fawning courtiers but welcomed simply by shepherds who, “with glowing hearts by his cradle,” stood and knelt in adoration. “Noël! Noël!... Long lay the world in sin and error pining, Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth…”
“O Holy Night…” Sacred Scripture repeatedly resounds with this theme, especially as it pierces and dissipates primordial darkness, symbolic of ignorance, superstition, confusion, chaos and a host of terrifying forces.
Light, as opposed to the darkness of night, is a perennial Biblical metaphor for God and for divine intervention in our world and the universe.
In the Biblical story of creation, we learn that in the beginning “darkness was upon the face of the deep” when God said, “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1-3) Moreover, light is described as “good,” and that it is not the same as darkness. (Ibid., 3) Indeed, the very first act of God in calling forth the “earth” and cosmos from nothing was separating light from darkness. This light, we are also told, is destined to become the ever-unfolding light that is God himself. (Revelation 21:5; First John 1:5)
Darkness, therefore, is not the world’s determined destiny. It is revealed with certainty that humankind’s final destiny is light, light impossible to reduce to darkness. The truth is that Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate, born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, personifies the Light of the World, in and through which all persons and the cosmos find ultimate, permanent, total fulfillment.
Indeed, all of the above is projected mysteriously in the scene of Christ’s birth while the world was all but frozen in darkness. The shepherds of Christmas were keeping night watch over their flocks. (Lk 2:8) And an ancient Scriptural tradition underlying the Midnight Christmas Mass depicts the darkness of the first Christmas. (Wisdom 18:14-15) A fourth-century Latin hymn reads, in translation: “When the midnight, dark and still, wrapped a silence vale and hill… God the Son… Started life as Man on earth…”
Since that first Christmas, the shades of darkness have revisited the world, everywhere, it seems, and repeatedly.
This Christmas, tentacles of death, dark evil ideologies and actions are beginning to choke the soul of our world. Everywhere, from Paris to Mali and beyond, destructive, barbarous shadows can be seen crossing whatever is morally good. There is darkness everywhere: human slavery, direct abortion, mass murders, beheadings, home invasions, the destruction of ageless artifacts, the kidnapping of children and youths, church and school burnings, massive thefts and more.
Darkness, shades of night everywhere, are slowly creeping into the observance of Christmas, which tells us that such darkness cannot possibly win the day; Satan and his cohorts have been vanquished in principle. Meanwhile, they are still at work. The key to victory is already alluded to in the first chapters of the Bible; namely, that God and his forces ultimately separate light from darkness. “Fall on your knees, / Oh hear the angel voices…” Indeed, night, by Jesus’ birth, becomes as if it were day. Thus it becomes Godlight, in which the Son of God Incarnate is transfigured, and to whom we pray, “Lead, kindly Light.”
There is no other way to a merry – blessed – Christmas. It is no wonder that some languages have named Christmas, “Holy Night.”