It’s cold; and darkness has swallowed the last light of the day. I’m walking up a remote snow covered road in the Austrian Alps with my daughter and lots of friends. A snowmobile rushes past carrying children headed to the same destination as us. As the sound and light of it disappears, we are enveloped once again by winter’s dark night, and the sporadic silence that comes when people are hiking uphill. We can look back, or down into the valley, and see the lights that represent shelter and warmth. Ahead though, there’s only darkness. And yet, ahead is the way, and we all know it. Some know it because they’ve been this way before. The rest of us know it because we trust our friends. Still, it’s dark, and unknown. We’ve been walking 20 minutes or so and are thick into the forest, and the cold, and the dark.
And this, of course, is the way of it for all of us. We lose a job. A relationship implodes because of infidelity, or addiction. Mental illness and weapons create a cocktail that steals lives, and innocence. When stuff happens, the path forward often seems dark, foreboding, uncertain. And yet, we who seek Christ, can still know and believe that “there’s light up ahead” because at the core of it, the gospel is nothing, if not a belief that “there’s light up ahead”, in spite of the shooting, and terror, and greed, that fill our world.
I recently heard the testimony of a doctor who became a Christian. His atheism was shredded by the joy, confidence, and light that he saw time again in people of faith who were facing death. “What did they have?” he wondered, and his search led him to CS Lewis, and the Bible, and eventually, to kneeling in prayer in the Cascade mountains, where he yoked his life to the light of the world.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light”
A faint glow becomes visible ahead of us. “That’s the hut” my friend says and as we press on, the outline of the hut emerges. Soon we’re inside, shedding our coats, enjoying our drinks and conversation. It’s a mighty party, Austrian style and as soup, piles of meat, dessert, more drinks, coffee, gifts (to everyone, including my daughter and her two friends are visiting me for the weekend), more conversation, and dancing fill many hours, we too become full. We’re full of food, drink, joy, and gratitude for these moments that are a touch of eternity: different languages, cultures, backgrounds, joined together by the common bond that we love the mountains and of course, more profoundly, by our common love of the One who is the light of the world. The next day, on the train heading home, I ponder the power of light.
Light is appreciated in proportion to the darkness of the journey. Maybe this is why Jesus said that it’s hard for rich people enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s not that there’s no darkness in their lives. It’s just that they’re able to mute the darkness with all kinds of pseudo lights. Cars, boats, travel, endless phone upgrades – there’s another light, always just around the corner, available at the swipe of your VISA to give you a little endorphin hit.
If this is true, than perhaps its strangely good news to ponder that even wealthy westerners come a place in life where the darkness is so thick that no artificial luminaries can cast it out. This is the story of the prodigal son who wanders into the far country and hits bottom. This is the story of the one who comes to Christ because their world has fallen apart. This is the one who, in spite of wealth, has faced their loneliness, or fear, or mortality. I’ve hiked at night many times and as long as their’s a headlamp, I don’t even think about how vulnerable I am. There was a time though, when my headlamp failed, and I was alone in the dark. When that happens, I wanted light nearly as much as air, and more than water. We all know those who are walking in palpable darkness, whose lights have failed them. May we, in these days ahead, do more than eat, drink, shop, and call it a holiday. May we point each other to the light of the world who alone can guide through the violent, polluted, oppressive insanity that is our world just now.
We are light bearers. The stunning truth of it is that the light of world is now intended to shine through we who claim to be followers of Christ because his light and life reside within us. We’re to be that place of safety where, in the midst of life’s storms and confusion, a measure of peace and safety can be found. Being that light, that hospitable place, requires that I live my life with an outward focus, serving, blessing, and loving those around me, even if they never believe. Where God’s people have done this, the people walking in darkness have been presented with a God of wholeness, joy, and hospitality. It’s St. Francis throwing parties for lepers. It’s St. Patrick having a brewmaster on his evangelistic team. It’s lavish food and drink given with no strings attached. It’s walking with a neighbor who’s walking through their own dark valley. This is what it means to let the light shine.
It’s no good doing Christmas if all it means is shop, eat, drink, and call it a holiday, because Christmas is a celebration at this dark time of year, that there’s light up ahead, a time when history will turn a corner. In the meantime, before we arrive at the mansion that is the completion of history, we are, each of us, invited to be little huts of light – places where the safety and shelter of Christ can be found.
May the Light of the world shine on you, and in you, and through you – this day and every day.