And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
-Luke 1:76-79 (ESV)
The Bible gives no clear indication as to what part of the year Christ’s birth took place. Some argue that Christians chose Dec. 25 as the date of Christ’s birth to compete with pagan solstice festivals, while others see the Christmas celebration at this time of year as something that rose up independently at a early date. However Christmas came to rest on Dec. 25th, winter is an appropriate time of the year to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Dec. 25th is only a few days after the winter solstice, when the sun spends the shortest time above the horizon. The decline in daylight and the stormy weather combine to make this period one of the darkest times of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. As a consequence, light takes on greater significance and beauty during winter, whether it be from a surprise sunny day or rows of twinkling Christmas light. Light breaking into darkness is often connected with the coming of Christ in Scripture, the Song of Zechariah above being one example. The song itself points back to a passage in Isaiah which looks forwards to the coming of Christ. Preceding the well know passage which begins “For to us a child is born” are the lines:
And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness. But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
-Isaiah 8:22-9:2 (ESV)
The connection between Christ and the coming of light made its way into the O Antiphons, which date back to the early Latin Church and are traditionally sung in the days leading up to Christmas.1 The O Antiphons are often known today in their reworking as the verses of the Christmas song “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” The O Oriens antiphon says,
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Rising Sun, splendor of eternal light, and sun of justice:
Come, and illumine those sitting in darkness, and in the shadow of death.2
This inbreaking of light in the midst of darkness may also draw our imaginations to the story of Creation.
The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
-Genesis 1:2-5 (ESV)
On the first day of Creation, God brings light to the unformed world which is covered in darkness. During the remaining days of Creation, the world is given form and filled with living creatures, plants, and human beings. Winter is the season of the year when the world most resembles the unformed world of Genesis 1:2. Trees appear dead on the outside while smaller plants shrivel up, leaving only seeds behind. Many land mammals sleep underground in hibernation like creatures in a tomb. The ground may be covered with formless masses of snow and the sky by shapeless gray clouds. Mid-winter can feel like one long slog through dark and cold days.
The arrival of Christ in the dead of winter is a reminder that Spring is coming. Though the world may live in death and darkness, a light has dawned. Days will grow longer and the green growth of Spring is coming. This making or re-making is not merely on the level of nature. We humans who live with death and darkness look forward at Christmas to Christ’s Spring in the world. The incarnation signals the swinging into action of the long awaited plan of redemption. Simeon’s exclamation at seeing Jesus in the temple combines the imagery of the coming of light with celebration at the end of waiting.
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
The focus of the celebration of Christmas often revolves around Christ’s coming to save us from our sins. This, of course, is perfectly true. In another sense, Christ’s coming in the dark of winter is the first act of his plan to re-create the world. Christmas is day one of the Re-Creation story. The re-creation of individual human hearts is central to this, but the plan of creation does not stop there. In the end, the re-creation of the world and the destruction sin will remake not only human beings but all creation.
Humans, since they are spirit and flesh, are amphibians, participating in the natural and supernatural world. By participating in the natural world and time, we draw the natural and physical into the spiritual and supernatural. Natural, temporal phenomenon, like the changing of seasons can be embedded with spiritual and eternal significance and made to reflect supernatural realities. Christmas coming in the dark of winter is just once example, but a particularly relevant one as we celebrate God coming in the flesh.
↑1. Some people trace the O Antiphons back to the sixth century because of wording used by Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy. The reference in question is “Est igitur summum, inquit, bonum quod regit cuncta fortiter suauiterque disponit” Therefore, it is the highest good, she said, which rules all things strongly and arranges sweetly (Book III, Prosa 12) which is similar to the lines in the O Sapientia antiphon, “attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia.” Reaching from end all the way to end, strongly and sweetly arranging all things. It is very possible however, that Boethius shares a common source with the antiphon, Wisdom 8:1. In the Vulgate Wisdom 8:1 runs, “Attingit ergo a fine usque ad finem fortiter, et disponit omnia suaviter.” Therefore it reaches from end all the way to end strongly, and arranging all things sweetly. Boethius’s wording is no guarantee that he knew of the O Antiphons.
↑2. In “O Come O Come Emmanuel” this is:
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.