Silent night- the darkness of Christmas
Was Jesus born on December 25? It is just possible of course, but overall highly doubtful. Actually it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that the Son of God did come to earth and did come as a human baby. The precise date of his birth is not important, although the fact that there was a date of birth is vital. If it was not December 25, it was a date fixed in time and known to God himself, even if not to us.
Indeed why was Luke so keen to mention Quirinius, the Roman politician, if not to give the background to Jesus’ birth and fix it in its geographical and historical context?
Well, that’s the difference between a myth and the biblical narrative. ‘Once upon a time (i.e. any time, any place, it doesn’t matter), St George wandered down some lane somewhere and met a dragon’. You get the idea!
But when Christ was born, Augustus Caesar ruled an empire. During that reign he ordered a census to be taken. This census directly affected an insignificant couple from a little place called Nazareth, who were obliged to journey south to another little place – Bethlehem. Specific time, specific place. These details are crucial. The account is authentic.
Although we may not know the precise date of the Lord’s birth, we know that he was born at a time of darkness. Singing of ‘the bleak mid-winter’ seems apt. Certainly, when the angel told the shepherds that a Saviour who is Christ the Lord had been born in Bethlehem, it was at the dead of night.
However the reference to darkness is to be understood spiritually, as well as of his birth being literally by night. Christ came into a world that was lost, confused, morally askew and miserable. There was a coldness and alienation about life. The pallor of death hung everywhere.
The voices of the prophets had long been silenced by the passing of the years. It was a time when godly men and women could look around and imagine that the Lord must have abandoned his people. The light of God’s revelation may not have been extinguished, but it seemed to be flickering in deepening gloom.
Things were bleak for everyone – Gentiles as well as Jews. Caught between rural paganism, the deadening effect of Greek philosophising, and the cult of Emperor worship amongst the Romans, where could anyone turn for light? The world was in spiritual blackness.
But this was precisely the world into which the promised Messiah would enter. Isaiah had prophesied 700 years earlier: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined’.
The dawn was about to arrive, but, for now, people were in the midst of the darkest hour. The trouble was that all but a handful were too engulfed in the shadows to realise that this was God’s time. Few remembered that God had prophesied in advance in the Old Testament scriptures that the Messiah would come in a time of darkness.
There were a few noteworthy and honourable exceptions. Take old Simeon, and even older Anna. These Jewish servants of God had been waiting for this moment. When Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms he spoke of ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of God’s people Israel’.
They understood what the rest of the world could not see – that the darkness was about to be lifted. The light of the world had come.
Let’s run this back a little. The night-time message of hope given by the angels to the shepherds was not that God had come to brighten up their otherwise dark and rather dreary lives. He had not even come to give them a purpose for living. Rather, the baby now lying in a feeding trough had come as far more – as a Saviour.
The strength of the world’s darkness is sin – deeply woven into the fabric of society and further embedded in the personal sin of every individual. If sin can be likened to a financial sinking fund, we are all contributors. And we are all sinking in it, blinded and entrapped by the darkness.
The message of great joy entrusted to the shepherds was precisely the message a dying world needed to hear. The Son of God had come to break the power of sin, release its deathly grip upon people, lift the misery it caused, and bring peace and forgiveness to aching hearts.
But more than being a Saviour for a vague mass of humanity, the shepherds were told that the Son of God had come as a Saviour for them. ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’.
A Saviour for a dark world. This message is timeless. It is as relevant to us today as it was then. Our world remains in darkness, and our private world of sin closes in blackness. Step forward, the Light of the World! We need him and his forgiveness today, as badly as our predecessors needed him in their day.