Another Christmas is coming, and the days are growing shorter. We are very close to the eastern boundary of our time zone where I live; it is dark now before 5:00 p.m. The sounds of evening have a melancholy, slightly menacing quality they don't give off in the bright heat of summer. Advent candles seem to have a practical as well as a ritual purpose. Staying warm requires work.
My thoughts have often gone, at this time of year, to the question of what our world would be like if Jesus had not come. I think a great deal would be different, in terms of the development of human philosophy, science, politics, and societal arrangements. But in this year, when for many of us the problems of human society have never seemed nearer to a crisis point, I find myself thinking in much simpler terms about what Jesus has meant to humanity.
The first of my two lines of thought for 2011 is the simplest, and it is this: Jesus came at night. We don't know for sure what time of year he arrived. What we do have, however, is the allusions in the gospels to night and the things of darkness surrounding Jesus' birth.
Joseph and Mary sought a room, as many a weary traveler has, to rest at night. The gospel accounts don't specify what time Jesus was born, but the proclamation of his birth to the shepherds occurred at night, probably coincident with the event. The wise men from the East navigated to Bethlehem by following a star, one of the jewels of the night sky. God could have guided them in other ways, but He chose a method that worked in darkness.
Even the flight into Egypt was prompted by a dream given to Joseph at night. We are told in Matthew 2 that Joseph obeyed the directive from the dream immediately, taking Mary and Jesus out of Judea under cover of darkness.
I doubt that I am alone in having had a lifelong vision of the Christmas story as taking place under a night sky lit by stars. Christmas is unique in that almost all of the imagery associated with it involves night and darkness—yet it is an annual celebration of promise and joy.
This is explained, of course, in John 1:4-5: "In him [the Word, Jesus] was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcomeit" (NIV). Jesus, the light in our darkness, had to come in darkness because that is our natural state. And when he did come in darkness, the features of darkness lined up in obedience to his purposes.
It was in a darkness as grim as that of today's world that Jesus the Savior was sent to us. Ronald Reagan used to tell the story of a boy who was digging determinedly in a pile of manure. The boy's reason? "There has to be a pony in here somewhere!" When the darkness is greatest, that is when we should be on the lookout for the light of Jesus Christ.
The second line of thought in this Christmas season is about what that light means to us. Even Christians have come to ponder that question in the systematic, ideological terms that characterize our era. By "systematic," I mean that we view life as an overarching system of interlocking subsystems in which human relations are ordered through economics, technology, politics, and morality. For a Westerner born in the 20th century, it is virtually impossible to think in any other terms. Western culture has been refining the "-isms" by which we explain these systems for at least fifteen generations, and the -isms have spread by the mechanisms of culture to the furthest corners of the earth. Even when we cannot properly describe the ideologies, feature by feature, our thoughts about what benefits humanity are thoroughly regulated by them.
So it was interesting for me in the past week to encounter a benefit brought to us by Jesus that defies neat categorization by a modern ideology. That benefit is recognizing the bona fides of Jesus in a person of very different background: detecting in the person a resonant wisdom, and finding a common frame of reference.
The person in question is an Egyptian evangelical Christian named Ramez Atallah, who heads the Bible Society of Egypt. Independent journalist Michael J. Totten interviewed him in November (here and here), seeking to understand the threat to Christians in a post-Mubarak Egypt where the military rulers have seemed hostile or indifferent, and Islamists are gaining political power.