In the Bleak Midwinter: Suffering in the dark

John on Patmos

Many students of the Bible say that the fourth “gospel,” written by John, is the last one written. It sounds like that to me, too. It sounds like it is written by an old man who has been through a lot. John did go through a lot: a lot of miracle, then crucifixion, then resurrection, then persecution, then evangelism, then church development and leadership, then church conflict, then a final persecution that lead to his exile on the island of Patmos where he had his amazing vision, and where he might have also written his account of Jesus’ work.

When John begins his brief, but poetic and profound, summary of the birth of Jesus, he strikes a mournful note in the middle of it. To me, he sounds like an old man who has suffered to bring the good news of Jesus to people who have rejected it and abused it. That bothers him.

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1)

He is pondering light coming into darkness. He knows the darkness well. It is a darkness that does not recognize God coming onto it. It is a darkness as deep as being rejected by your own family — you come home and they leave you out in the dark!

Life born into the dark world

But John does not dwell there too long. He wants to tell the truth about what happened to Jesus and to himself as a result of meeting Jesus. But he almost breathlessly gets to the secret he wants to reveal: In the midst of this dark world where the light is not recognized as light, and family is not loved as family, the life of God is born into the world and born in people who receive it, who recognize God in Jesus and trust him for renewed life.

I’m feeling with John this Advent. Last night, we spent our monthly Coordinators meeting celebrating our deep love for each other and the great successes of our work in 2010. It felt like an island of light, and spiritual depth in the middle of deep darkness. On one occasion during my 35th-anniversary trip to Costa Rica, my host asked me what I did for a living. When I said, “I am the pastor of our church,” he immediately said, “In my family, we never talk about religion or money.” The darkness wouldn’t even let me be recognized for who I am. I got a gag order! (Didn’t work that well, but I got it). 

Another time I asked my local guide, who had been so helpful in every way, when the festival in Nicoya was scheduled. I had read something about a Christmas procession in a guide book. She said something like, “Oh, people in the church do things. I’m not sure.” The church has a parade and a person can manage to be totally ignorant! (Putting Mary on a sedan chair and clogging traffic may not be the best advertisement, but it is pretty adroit ignorance to channel the input to some cranial “junk mail” folder!).

I have such wonderful Advents! Jesus is coming and I recognize and receive him. I am and feel born of God. It is amazing. It was amazing to sit among my close colleagues and witness how the light came into their personal darkness. But that miracle happens in a world that seems to be turning its back on God-with-us even more deliberately, even among people who should know better,  

I hear a mournful tone that I have decided to hold on to this season. My carol has become “In the Bleak Midwinter.” John wants to rush to the joy of new birth, But he has enough discipline to let the whole truth be told. Self-giving love does not come to the world without suffering. In a dark, maybe darkening, world, the light continues to meet resistance.

One thought on “In the Bleak Midwinter: Suffering in the dark

  1. Rod, thanks for the hyperlink on there under the words “people who should know better”. That article felt like a reminder and encouragement to me for why we need to be the church that we are in this time and place.

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