The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness did not overcome it.

         (John 1:5)

It would be nice to be able to believe that life is all goodness and light. But, if we are honest, we must admit that our experience of life is that we human beings and the world and the world in which we live seem to be incredibly, tragically, almost irredeemably broken.

The suffering that is the testimony of human history and of so much personal experience is almost unbearable. There are times, when I look at peoples’ lives and at the world around me, and I find myself feeling utterly overwhelmed.

John’s Gospel is clear that there is darkness. Things do not always work well. Terrible tragedies befall even the most innocent of people. There can be no escape from the reality that there are times when life is simply hell. I wish it were not so, but reality compels me to acknowledge how dark and difficult life can at times be.

Sometimes life just hurts. There are times when just getting through from one day to the next is the greatest victory for which we can hope. You just put one foot in front of the other trusting that there is light somewhere in the midst of this terrible darkness.

In the face of the reality of darkness, John the Gospel writer does not give in to despair. He refuses to allow the forces of darkness to triumph. He affirms boldly that, despite the darkness, there is light  and the darkness does not “overcome” this light.

It is an interesting word “katalambano“, translated in the NRSV as “overcome”.  The root of the word is “to lay hold of.”  From this root “katalambano” can carry the meaning of “taking power over,” thus “defeating,” or of “laying hold of with the mind,” thus “understanding.

Both senses of “katalambano” are helpful.

John is saying that the darkness does not understand the light. They speak different languages. Darkness simply cannot make sense of the light. For darkness the power of forgiveness, of turning the other cheek simply does not make any sense. Darkness cannot comprehend gentleness, kindness, faith, hope, or love. Light is foreign territory for darkness. When we walk too long in darkness, the light will seem to us like pain. This may be what the bible means when it speaks of judgment, a topic to which we will return, as we persevere in this journey through John.

The other sense of “katalambano” simply affirms that, in the end, the victory goes to the light. Light is stronger than darkness. Darkness cannot defeat the light. This is simply a statement of faith. In some situations it is a dramatic radical statement of faith. We make a choice every day.

I have never forgotten a piece of verse a friend shared with me when I was in seminary:

Two men looked through prison bars,                                                                one saw mud,                                                                                                                            the other saw stars.

So much of life depends upon where we choose to look.

I love the fact that every year, beginning in late November, people all over the city begin to put up Christmas lights outside their houses. I know that a lot of the decorations we see each year at Christmas are kitschy. But they are all a gesture towards the celebration of light and beauty.

By putting up decorations in the Christmas season, people are responding, even if in a vague, inarticulate way, to the prompting of the light. This is a time of year when the hard shell of the world cracks open to a truth that calls to some deep stirring in the human heart.

As we prepare for Christmas, I pray that I may be able to celebrate the light wherever it shines.