Many of the inner pictures connected with the birth of Christ, with the Nativity that we carry in our imaginations, place the light filled holy family into a protective sheath of surrounding darkness. We can think of Rembrandt’s Nativity, or of Ninetta Sombart’s Birth of Christ and sense the sheltering quality that the darkness lends to the holy event of his birth. The Christ Child is received into the blanket of night and, in equal measure the darkness of night has a role to play in the events surrounding Christ’s birth.
We can thus begin to distinguish between different qualities of darkness. In the Luke account of the nativity, the shepherds who watched over their flocks by night receive the news of the revelation of Christ’s birth under the envelope of night. The darkness surrounding them has the quality of a simple and pure piety. It is a pre-dawn, starless darkness which speaks to the natural religiosity that is the birthright of every child. It is pure, close to nature, and relatively unburdened with worldly concerns.
Looking at the events around Christ’s birth described in the gospel of Matthew on the other hand, reveals a quality of darkness that has become differentiated and worldly. Within the darkness surrounding the 3 Kings, the starry firmament becomes visible. Looking up to the stars, the ages-old wisdom of the heavenly bodies is reflected in and taken up by the kings, and they behold the Christ’s descent into earthly matter in the star. Wisdom is born of experience, of entering painfully into the fullness and depth of relationship to the earth. This quality of darkness in the Matthew gospel is of a very different quality than in Luke. It is neither childlike, nor innocent and it surrounds rulers of nations whose tasks are grounded in the affairs of the civilized world.
Between the reverence of the shepherds and that of the kings, we sense a continuum that begins with reverential innocence and moves seamlessly over time into reverence born of experience. The darkness of night in both accounts however, bespeak of a depth of reverence that is needed in order to receive revelation. Reverence has a dark quality in that it calls forth an unknowing receptivity divorced from outcome, divorced from any preconception of content which might be received. The highest revelations of the spirit cannot be willed – only received, for their source is veiled to the human I. In the surrounding darkness into which the Christ Child is born, we hear choirs of angels. The darkness of night overflows with light of revelation. Out of this overflowing abundance surrounding the town of Bethlehem, the pregnant fullness of the spirit coalesces, concentrates mightily, and finally breaks through at one single point into the sense-world as earth receives the holy child.
We are left with the question: How can the sublime pictures of the nativity be reconciled with our crass and hectic lives? Where on our stricken earth is there room for a silent reverence so complete that it might receive the light of such revelation?
As we move forward and look into Christ’s life as a human being of flesh and blood, we find that the pictures we carry within us at Christmastide, are metamorphosed in the life of Christ-Jesus. Following the accounts of the gospels with the question: ’Into what darkness is Christ received?‘ leads from the nativity into life. As Christ-Jesus moves about the Holy Land with his disciples, he is not received by choirs of angels, nor by the sublime joy surrounding his birth, but by the dark depths of human suffering, by the cries of the sick, the lame, the possessed, the infirm – all those who, through the circumstances of theirs lives, have been cast out into the darkness. He is met by the malice of hardened thinking of religious authority. He is also met by a few who felt their human destiny within his, and became his disciples.
What was outer circumstance surrounding the nativity, becomes inner drama in the life of Christ. Veiled in darkness, all of the drama surrounding the birth of Christ – the outer poverty of the Luke nativity, the dark treachery of King Herod’s murderous rampage described by Matthew – becomes transposed onto the showplace of the human soul. As the spirit of Christ enters ever more deeply into relationship with human beings of flesh and blood, the drama surrounding his life and birth is rewritten. This new living gospel, announced by the old is thus written into the soul of individual human beings.
The twelve holy nights of Christmas is a time to turn inward, to look at the essential role that darkness plays in the unfolding of the human soul. Within it, hidden under the blanket of night, well out of sight from the world and often, even from ourselves, the terrible drama of the human condition resounds with the choir of angels, and shines forth with the light of the starry firmament that announces Christ’s birth.