Yesterday, in #AdventReflectionMJD 5, I spent a few minutes thinking about the remarkable words of John 1:5, and the power of the Light in the prologue of John’s Gospel.
‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’John 1:5, NRSV
In my sixth reflection, I want to consider a short phrase at the other end of John’s Gospel. A few days after Jesus has died, Mary Magdalene comes to the borrowed tomb in which the Body of Christ has been placed. She has come to finish the burial preparations. She wants to tend to the One that she loved. Perhaps she wants to say her last goodbyes? Her heart is broken. The dream is shattered. The world is a mess. Nothing makes sense. The narrative opens with a stark declaration of the darkness of that day.
‘Early on the first day of the week, while is was still dark…’John 20:1, NRSVA
How can this be?
John told us at the beginning of His Gospel that the Light could never be extinguished by the dark. How can it therefore, ‘still’ be dark? When did this darkness begin? How has it overcome the light? Did John get it wrong at the beginning of his account? Is he getting it wrong now?
No – he is not. The darkness is caused by the fact that Jesus has died. As Mary Magdalene approaches the tomb, her life is dark, and the world is dark. How could it be light when Christ has gone? Mary, and the other women who followed Jesus, felt their hope snuffed out as they watched Him die. The men had fled, their hopes buried under the confusion and pain of the Crucifixion. As Mary approaches the tomb, she is walking in darkness. The world is in darkness. Luke uses powerful imagery to remind us of the awful consequences of the death of Jesus.
‘It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.’Luke 23:44-45, NRSV
The very Creation was taken to the edge of extinction as the One Who upholds all things by His powerful word dies. This was no seven minute eclipse. This was a moment of cosmic significance. For three hours the darkness descends.
Where the Son of God is dead, there can be no light. When His voice is silenced, the sun’s light fails.
Christ is alive when Mary approaches the tomb. He has already risen. It is dark because it is early. The dawn has not yet broken. The sun’s rays are yet to touch her face and bathe the garden. Yet Christ has already risen. Mary, does not know that. The image of darkness is not only a physical description, it is a spiritual and emotional reality for Mary. Her world is dark because He has gone.
We know the rest of the Story in John 20, I hope. As the account progresses, we discover that the Son has risen. As the Dawn of Resurrection Day breaks over Jerusalem the morning darkness gives way to light. As Christ appears to His disciples, the darkness of their fear, pain, confusion and despair is swallowed up by the Light of His Life. This is new creation. This is Hope bursting out of despair. This is Life bursting out of death. This is Comfort touching sorrow.
John’s comments in his opening words are still true. Light is still stronger than darkness. Life is still stronger than death. The world has been changed by the dawn that morning. It all began in a garden in Genesis 1; it will all end when the world becomes a garden city in Revelation 21 and 22. And the decisive, darkness-shattering, life-giving, hope-infusing, comfort-bringing, courage-releasing; joy-releasing, death-defying moment that guarantees the end of the Story happens in the Garden in John 20 as Mary, then Peter and John, then the others, discover that it really is true – the darkness cannot overcome the Light. Nothing will ever be the same again. And Mary discovers this in the garden as Jesus appears to her – as a Gardener!
This week I sat with a family who lost a loved one. I heard of the death of a young man who was only married a few months ago. Today, as I write these words, a well known Christian evangelist died. Just under a fortnight ago, a prominent Christian businessman in Northern Ireland died. On the same day, a friend’s dad passed away. On December 1st, we held a service for those who find Christmas difficult because of sorrow and loss – around 200 people came. Our lives can be full of darkness. We can begin to wonder if the Light really is stronger than the darkness. We wonder if death is stronger than life. If Light is stronger than darkness then why do we fear the dark so much? Why do we fear death?
The answer is simple. We were made for life. We were made for light. We were made for hope. Death, darkness and despair are liars. They want us to believe that they have the final say, but they do not. God has the final say. God has the final word. God wins.
As I journey through the Advent Season, I find it helpful to be given the space to remind myself of these truths. A year can be a long time in the life of faith. A lot can happen. There are a lot of things that can make us believe that the sun has stopped shining. Advent reminds us, though, that we do not live in the dark. We may be walking through it, but we will not remain in it. Dawn will break. Light will shine. Hope will be triumphant.
We live between two comings – the Incarnation, and the Parousia, or the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus. In Advent, we deliberately remind ourselves of these two events. It strikes me that the light of the Incarnation casts a shadow forward, and the light of the Parousia casts a shadow backwards. And we live in the space where those shadows meet. But the shadows are evidence of the light.
I wonder what shadows have been cast in your soul this year? I wonder what darkness is trying to destroy your hope? Is it death? Is it fear? Is it disappointment? Is it loneliness? Whatever it is, may you take time to remember that the darkness will not last forever. Dawn will break. You live in the space between the worlds – but your life flows from the New Creation. And in the New Creation, it is never dark.
(C) Malcolm J. Duncan (Advent 2019)