The continuing battle of darkness against the light

The continuing battle of darkness against the light December 24, 2023


A clear night in France!
Savant Chapel, in Ouroux-en-Morvan, Bourgogne, France, on a clear and starry night with the Milky Way overhead. (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

At the request of the Deseret News, I published the brief message that follows back on 16 December 2010, under the title of “Christmas in the Holy Land — somber, yet triumphant.”  I wish that I could report that conditions in the Holy Land today, thirteen years later, were better.  Obviously, though, I cannot.  (See “Christmas celebrations canceled in Bethlehem as war rages in Gaza.”)  But the message and the meaning of Christmas are as badly needed now as ever before, and may shine the more brightly right now because of the hatred, violence, and suffering that are so very visible right now in the land where the story of Christmas. first unfolded:

LDS Church history sites that dot the eastern half of the United States all prepare for Christmas with lights, Nativity displays and other decorations. This week Mormon Times highlights Christmas at LDS Church historic sites from Sharon, Vt., to Nauvoo, Ill. Also, BYU professor Dan Peterson helps give insight to what the holiday season is like in the Holy Land.

Christianity is dying in its birthplace.

Nazareth, a predominantly Christian Arab town within living memory, is now mostly Muslim, and — though few realize it because the writing is in Arabic — tourists visiting the massive Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation are confronted by banners denying the deity of Christ.

Bethlehem was 85 percent Arab Christian when the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. Now the city’s Christian population has fallen to perhaps 10 percent.

Middle Eastern Christians have always found it relatively easy to immigrate to Europe and the Americas because they feel religiously comfortable there. The political instability and violence of the past several decades in Palestine, coupled with the more recent rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism and — in Bethlehem — the decline of the Palestinian economy (strangled, in part, by Israel’s security fence), have impelled many to leave.

And yet, Christmas continues to be celebrated by the beleaguered Palestinian Christian community and a relative trickle of Christian tourists. Christmas services are still conducted in Bethlehem’s literally fortress-like Church of the Nativity and Manger Square before the church is ablaze with Christmas lights.

Visiting choirs sing, Palestinian Boy Scout bagpipers play and one or two young Palestinian boys will be dressed as Santa Claus.

“May Peace Prevail on Earth!” reads one bullet-riddled sign, in English. Within walking distance, at the Shepherds’ Fields of Beit Sahour, a large electric star shines overhead. A few years ago, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury and the Catholic Cardinal of Westminster jointly visited Bethlehem to show their solidarity with local believers and to urge other Christians to come and support Palestinian hotels and shops.

In the contemporary Middle East, our need for a Savior seems particularly acute because the fact of the fall is especially obvious. Generations of human effort have failed to produce anything resembling peace. Yet, mercifully, the brilliant, warm light shed by the advent of the Prince of Peace shines forth from the region’s gloom with exceptional clarity.

Three decades ago, I sat on the Mount of Olives watching a column of Israeli tanks move slowly down the main road in the Kidron Valley. The yearning words of the agnostic Oxford classicist and poet A. E. Housman came forcefully to mind. Addressing Jesus, he prayed:

If in that Syrian Garden, ages slain,

You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,

Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright

Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night

The hate you died to quench and could but fan,

Sleep well and see no morning, Son of Man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,

At the right hand of majesty on high

You sit, and sitting so remember yet

Your fears, your agony and bloody sweat,

Your cross and passion and the life you gave,

Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

Not far from Bethlehem is Golgotha where, after the infant cradled in that manger had grown to manhood, he confronted evil and, in some incomprehensible manner, defeated it.

Steps away, he rose from the dead.

Though we sometimes despair, in the end “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

As evil seems to dominate much of the world, we must redouble our efforts to do good.  “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life; and the life was the light of men.  And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.  (John 1:1-5)


Leighton's Star of Bethlehem
“The Star of Bethlehem”
Frederic Leighton, ca. 1862
(Wikimedia Commons public domain)

The Lamanite prophet Samuel had prophesied that, in five years, there would be a day, a night, and a day without any darkness, and now the time had come for the fulfillment of that prophecy.  But those who hated the Church and the faithful were eager to punish the believers, planning to execute them on the day that the prophecy would come due — if, as the haters hoped, it proved false.

Sadly, too, many of the people who believed began to doubt.  They began to be “sorrowful, lest by any means those things which had been spoken might not come to pass” (3 Nephi 1:7).  The difficult principle seems to have held in this case, too:

And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.  (Ether 12:6)

Sometimes, it seems, we must wait until the bitter end, almost until desperation, before the blessing arrives and the promise is fulfilled.

As the time drew imminent, the prophet Nephi “cried mightily to his God in behalf of his people” (3 Nephi 1:11).  And then came these glorious words:

Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfil all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets. (3 Nephi 1:13).

It was Christmas Eve.



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