“A Light to Lighten the Gentiles”: Christmas Reflections

bright star in night sky - christmas reflections

The simple — and I think understandable — fact of the matter is, a lot of my thoughts about Christmas come with music attached. Last week, one of the season’s first chances to sit quietly and think Christmas thoughts came at Carnegie Hall, up in the cheap seats on the highest balcony. A fine New York City ensemble, The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and a choir of professionals from Montreal, La Chapelle de Québec, performed Bach’s entire Christmas Oratorio. It was glorious. The hall was nearly full, including, just in front of me, five rows of priests, seminarians, and a bishop or two.

As I write this, Christmas music plays from my iPhone’s very long Christmas playlist. “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” is playing now. It has become a favorite. (I wrote about this before.) The playlist is mostly alphabetical; if I didn’t tell my phone to shuffle it, I’d get five different recordings of that carol in a row. It wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Using the shuffle button has its risks. That sublime carol just gave way to the Chipmunks singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” It’s been on my phone for a few years, since I used it to summon the family to wakefulness, breakfast, and gifts one Christmas morning. Perky and annoying, it was just the thing to make it difficult for them to fall back into sleep.

It’s still perky and annoying. But it’s short and I let it play. I’m too lazy to reach out my finger and skip it, let alone remove it from the playlist. “The Huron Carol” by the Canadian Brass is next.

All that music is the setting for writing my Christmas reflections. The reflections themselves come mostly from the Bible today, though music makes another appearance at the end.

Light

Mere days after the birth at Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph presented the baby Jesus at the temple. There an old priest named Simeon prayed, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).

Light had already been a theme through the centuries. “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” wrote the Psalmist (Psalm 27:1). “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,” wrote Isaiah (Isaiah 9:2). “When I sit in darkness,” said Micah, “the Lord shall be a light unto me” (Micah 7:8).

Years after Jesus’ mortal ministry, John would look back and write of “the true Light, which lighteth every man” (John 1:9). Of himself Jesus said, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Way, Truth, Life

I don’t think it’s odd to look ahead a few decades, when we consider the Christmas story. The wonders at Bethlehem were prelude. And I don’t think it’s just the fact that “light” sounds like “life” that has me lingering at this Christmas season on something else Jesus said about himself. He told Thomas, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). John himself saw Light and Life together: “In him was life; and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4).

For a moment let’s consider way, truth, and life.

We all, or nearly all, want life, and we want it abundantly here between birth and death. We who are Christians, among others, embrace the promise of life beyond death, of endless life in the presence of God. Otherwise, Christmas might not mean very much at all.

Jesus’ next words in that conversation with Thomas bear directly on the way: “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Not many weeks later, after the crucifixion and resurrection, Peter echoed this theme: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Among Christians such thoughts cause some discomfort. Different versions of Christianity offer strikingly different accounts of what the one path to God actually is. And more than a few Christians suspect or even declare that a loving, merciful God would not, could not be so exclusive (if exclusive is what these words make him). Happily, at Christmas, at least, we Christians usually can set our differences aside and enjoy the season.

Outside Christianity, of course, there is little enthusiasm for the idea that Jesus is finally our only path to God. Some deny that he is a path to God at all.

That the way might entail obedience and an active faith, not just idle belief, doesn’t sit well with the modern world. How dare the voices of any religion declare that anything is right or wrong? That there are things God requires us to do to please him? That some things are objectively true or objectively false? It’s elitist, they cry. It’s judgmental. Some people call it hate speech.

And speaking of truth — and its personification, its incarnation — the idea of truth, let alone any substance of truth, doesn’t sit too well in a time of aggressive, competing narratives. We are in our time — which is not unique in this — “driven with the wind and tossed” (James 1:6). We are tossed on a sea of narrative. Is there anything we could possibly need more than a Light to show the Way? Than Truth to anchor us against the storm?

Give My Heart

Here’s where Christmas gets most deeply personal, at least for me.

If life is what we seek, if we yearn for something to enrich and empower us, to focus and direct and illuminate our days, we look for the Light. We look to the Life. From there, for me, it’s a short step to another favorite Christmas carol which puts words and music to my introspection:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.

(Christina Rossetti, “A Christmas Carol,” 1872, often sung as “In the Bleak Midwinter”)

Christina Rossetti’s question and answer are much beloved among the best Christians I know. The words are so firmly rooted in my own mind that I wrote them into a Christmas novella. (Not coincidentally, it’s entitled Poor As I Am.) Then I put the thought in new words and wrote them into a fictional carol in another Christmas story (“Keep My Secrets?” published in the same collection):

When I think about my Savior,
Born and died a lowly Lamb, 
I would praise Him, follow, serve Him, 
Offer everything I am.

I don’t always think my way so deeply into Christmas. When I do, it helps some things. Even when I don’t, Christmas is good. Some Christians mourn the largely secular spirit of our modern celebrations. But I can’t help thinking it’s good for the world to embrace Christmas, even if many celebrate with more merriment than devotion. There’s always at least a chance that, somewhere between our purchases and our parties, we’ll bump into these larger things. When we do, they find our way into us, if only a millimeter or two at a time. He finds his way into us.

A Light to lighten us . . . the Light of the world . . . the Way, the Truth, and the Life . . .

Give my heart . . .

Have a joyous Christmas.


Here’s a gorgeous recent performance of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The lines I quoted are the last verse.


Photo credit: Gage Smith on Unsplash


From the Author

David Rodeback

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