Monday night, I went to a Christmas concert. The singing was beautiful, both traditional carols and unfamiliar pieces, a few even new to the world this season. From time to time, the audience stood and joined the singers, a couple thousand voices singing of joy and hope and of yearning for a better world. When it was over, my companion turned to me and said, “It was beautiful, but they should have cancelled it. I feel so bad for those families [in Newtown], weeping while the rest of the world sings.”
Last night, I opened my e-mail and found that a friend had written me with a similar set of questions. My friend comes from a family with an abusive parent, who is now dying, and my friend was trying to make sense of it all: both the gifts this parent had imparted and the lasting pain this person had caused. Underneath it was an unspoken question: how do we live fully and honorably in this life, which deals out joy and pain in startling measure? How do we mourn in a way that honors what has happened, yet not allow our lives to buckle under the weight of pain? Do the shadows win?
At the very beginning of the Gospel of John, the evangelist writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” It is a strange construction, juxtaposing verb tenses in arresting ways. The light shines constantly in darkness that seems always to be present, and yet the power of darkness is past; it has somehow been broken, but it has not been destroyed. It is still there; we taste it, every day.
Christ is, for now, the light in the darkness. Madeleine L’Engle writes, “The greater the radius of light, the larger the perimeter of darkness.” All we can do, in the continuing presence of evil, is to ensure that the light of God-in-us does not falter, that it burns more brightly when darkness seems to close in. All we can do is move closer to the light, drink of it more deeply, come together to sustain one another, refuse to let the darkness overcome.
The more I wrestle with these questions, the more I think I see that it is all held in God’s hand. I do not know what that means. I do not believe that God is the author of evil. I do not believe that God caused the shootings in Newtown, or the stabbings in the school in China, or that God wants any one of us — anything at all — to be in pain. God has said it Godself: “I came that they may have live, and have it abundantly.” “I do not desire the death of a sinner, but that they turn from their sin and live.”
But, somehow, it is all God, all within God. And maybe the work is not to defeat darkness, in the sense that we trample it under foot and dismantle it and tell it to go far away. Maybe what we are asked to do is own the darkness, to welcome it into the light, to call it by name, to immerse it in God’s forgiveness until its power is broken.
Evil gains great power when we deny that it is there. Small sins, forced into darkness, fester. Pain and loneliness, unacknowledged, unsalved, become monstrous. When we refuse to acknowledge our own capacity for evil, we cannot amend our lives, enact just laws, or create a society in which good people are safe.
At the time of Christ’s birth, God chose to come among us. God did not come because we were safe. (We were not.) God did not come because we were happy or joyful or treated one another well. (We were not, and we did not.) God came because we needed company. We needed healing. We needed friendship. We needed strength and forgiveness and joy and life, which God had to give in abundance. God took our darkness into God’s own light, and we are still singing in praise.
And so we mourn and we sing, all at once. We sing carols with tears in our eyes and we cry with tiny vigil candles in our hands. We do the work of Christ, to shine in the darkness until the darkness is overcome. To speak words of love until hate lays down its weapons and comes home.