Traditionally, the opening words of St John’s Gospel are read as the Gospel on Christmas Day, even though they don’t describe the birth of Jesus as such. John takes the story back to the creation of the world. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ There is no mention of the Annunciation to Mary, or of the visit of the Magi, or of the Choir of Angels appearing to shepherds as they tend their sheep. Instead, John speaks of light and darkness - of the light and love of God erupting into a dark world, which failed to notice it, and didn’t want to know. ‘The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not….He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.’
The Evangelist was speaking of his own first century world, but he might just as well have been speaking of our world; for many people today still don’t understand, don’t want to know, don’t want to receive him. Or is that to misjudge them? Certainly, a lot of people hate Christmas with all the hype, the talk of Three Wise Men and Angelic Choirs, the canned carols blaring in supermarkets, and the crowds queuing up for the battle of the sales which begin on Boxing Day. They fly to Thailand to avoid it all, and lie in the sun on the beaches there surrounded by drug-pushers before coming home, when Christmas is all over, with a splendid sun-tan and a monumental hangover. Others who can’t afford such luxuries, especially if they happen to live in Bosnia, Ruanda, the Gaza strip, or some other perennially lethal part of God’s world, simply ignore Christmas and get on with the serious business of killing their neighbours; while others yet again in less homicidal districts stay at home, draw the curtains, eat and drink a bit too much, and enjoy a few days’ blessed escape from commuting, the gas bills, and visiting old Aunt Dot in the nursing home. Any why shouldn’t they? It is not their fault that Christmas has been trivialised and secularised, nor that the stories of the Three Wise Men and the Shepherds in the Fields have been lumped together with tales of Santa Claus and his reindeers as kids’ stuff. But that is what in fact has happened. For many people Christmas has been reduced to kids’ stuff.
But St John’s Christmas is not for kids - far from it. It is for adults, who know all about the darkness of the world, about times of deep depression, moments when it seems as if God does not care tuppence for them, if he exists at all, or for the world, which - or so it is alleged - he created. And if we are to be honest, we all know such moments. He certainly does not seem to be doing much this Christmas about the bombing and sniping in Bosnia, or to be showing much interest in the starving children of Ruanda with arms like twigs and legs like match-sticks, whom we see night after night on the nine o’clock news; and every Christmas much the same is happening somewhere. Where has he got to? Is he on leave or something? Maybe he has gone to sleep? But don’t be ashamed, if you sometimes think such thoughts. You are in very good company. Poor old Job of Old Testament fame, looking for God, cried in desperation, “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him; on the left hand I seek him, but cannot behold him; I turn to the right hand, but I cannot see him.” Similarly, the great Isaiah of the captivity in Babylon, complained, “Truly, though art a God that hidest thyself.” And Jesus himself cried out, “My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me?” as he died in darkness at noon.
Thus the glory of Christmas - that which makes it possible for us to wish each other a happy Christmas - is not that God came into the world to abolish its darkness, but that he came into the world that we might find him in its darkness; and in him find the light - to quote St John again - which is able to light everyone that comes into the world and lead them through its darkness. And if personal experience is anything to go by, it is when life is at its darkest - in moments of black despair, the depths of grief, or blind terror, when men turn to God, perhaps for the first time and almost as a last resort - that they find him waiting there for them in the darkness. There will still be wars and rumours of wars after Christmas; men will still kill each other, and women will still weep on Boxing Day; the children of Ethiopia - or maybe somewhere else - will still visibly starve on our television screens next January; and one day our wife, lover, husband, even perhaps one of our children will die and leave us desolate. But at Christmas we remember that, even though God came unto his own, and his own received him not, as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God. And, knowing that, the darkness of the world loses its power to frighten or dismay us, and nothing can any longer separate us from the love of God, who took flesh that night in Bethlehem of Judea and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.