O Morning Star, splendour of the light eternal and bright Sun of righteousness: come and enlighten all who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death. Lord Jesus, come soon!
For over 20 years I drove to Providence College from Winnipeg, a 45 minute drive on a wind-swept highway. For many of those months, I and my fellow commuters left home in the dark and returned home in the dark. Now, living in northern Manitoba, I still spend a lot of time driving on lonely highways. While I try to avoid driving alone in the dark, when the sun rises late and sets early, it’s unavoidable. Most of us who live in Canada know what it’s like to have to go out in the winter in the dark, only to come home, still dark. It can feel overwhelming and defeating. That feeling also applies to the emotional or spiritual darkness we often feel when we look around our world. The ‘darkness’ of natural disasters, systemic racism, economic and social injustice, a global pandemic with no real end in sight – these darknesses threaten to overwhelm and defeat us.
“Umm Kara”, you might be thinking, “maybe turn up the holiday cheer a bit . . . perhaps a little more star of wonder and a little less moon of doom? Some lux redux to “in thy dark streets shineth”?
In Genesis, God’s first word sang out into the wild and waste, separating light from darkness. John picks up on this foundational image and expands the light and darkness imagery to spotlight the spiritual war which is being waged between God and the hostile forces that seek to snuff out the light. Though they seem powerful, they cannot understand, cannot overwhelm, and cannot extinguish the Light of Christ, the ‘Lux deluxe’, try as they might. In the midst of very real darkness, this is the Christmas story we need. Not some hot cocoa veneer of holiday cheer, but the epic, heaven-and-earth shaking truth of the eternal Light dazzling the darkness. Sometimes, in our cooing over the “little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay”, we forget that this baby shakes the rattle of battle, declaring war on the powers of evil and darkness.
Thankfully, we have the Gospel of John: The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. John 1:4-5, NLT
The 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten powerfully and poetically reminds us of this truth in his carol This Little Babe, a song I first encountered in when I was at college, singing in Dr. Henry Schellenberg’s College Singers:
This little babe so few days old Is come to rifle Satan’s fold; All hell doth at his presence quake, Though he himself for cold do shake; For in this weak unarmed wise The gates of hell he will surprise.
Britten takes the image of the little baby Jesus out of the Bethlehem crèche and onto the cosmic battlefield. These are powerfully contradictory images – as a little babe, Jesus is cold, and needy and helpless. But amazingly, he is also the one whose existence makes hell itself tremble. John wrote in the midst of persecution, Britten wrote in the midst of war. They saw evil and darkness threaten to overwhelm the light. We see that too. And though sometimes the evidence seems to point to the contrary, this is not a battle that can end up going either way. Light and darkness are opposites, but they’re not opposites of equal power. One single ray of light frees us from the dark. This little babe is the eternal Light that all the powers of darkness cannot understand, cannot overwhelm, and cannot extinguish. That’s a word of holiday cheer if I ever heard one: In the midst of the darkness of December and the darkness of our world, we are invited into the Light – the lux deluxe. There’s only one way to defeat the darkness: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” (John 8:12) Or, in Britten’s words: If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, Then flit not from this heavenly Boy. *Lux is the Latin word for light
Below are all the lyrics to Britten’s exquisite carol and a link to listen to an incredible performance. The lyrics are kind of strange and the carol is very fast, so you might need to listen to it a number of times!
This little Babe so few days old is come to rifle Satan's fold; all hell doth at his presence quake though he himself for cold do shake; for in this weak unarmèd wise the gates of hell he will surprise. With tears he fights and wins the field, his naked breast stands for a shield; his battering shot are babish cries, his arrows looks of weeping eyes, his martial ensigns Cold and Need and feeble Flesh his warrior's steed. His camp is pitchèd in a stall, his bulwark but a broken wall; the crib his trench, haystacks his stakes; of shepherds he his muster makes; and thus, as sure his foe to wound, the angels' trump alarum sound. My soul, with Christ join thou in fight, stick to the tents that he hath pight. Within his crib is surest ward, this little Babe will be thy guard. If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy.