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The Hardest Question: Basking in the Light

January 3, 2011

My exposure to this week’s Lectionary texts came at the last minute this week– just as they were being read in church this morning.  As they were unfolding, I felt an uneasiness with John 1, particularly at the part that I’ve always liked best.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

It’s one of those minor keys, one of those tragic turns, one of those twists that I love so much.  The best thing possible happened to these poor people in darkness, and they would have none of it.  But this  perfect escalating conflict in the epic Story just didn’t sit right with me this morning.  It didn’t satisfy me like it used to. Why?

The reason for my discomfort didn’t occur to me until later in the afternoon, perhaps because it is so ugly:  I have loved the darkness/light imagery, because I’ve imagined that I’m on the side of the light.  After all, I recognize Jesus, I follow him, I appreciate his wisdom.  He’s my guy.  I’m on Team Jesus, and all of these lesser people love their darkness so much that they can’t even appreciate a little light.  Such righteousness is heady stuff, and not easily replaced with humility or confession or an awareness of one’s own darkness.

It’s yet another example of the dangers inherent in wresting ideas from an ancient context and unthinkingly laying them onto a modern one.  For such binary imagery must have been a great comfort to the original audience, oppressed as they were with a brutal imperial rule that saw them as atheists (since they refused to pay homage to the Roman deities).  In such an upside-down religious landscape, it must have been heartening to attend a secretive gathering in a shuttered room somewhere and hear the writer John turn the tables on the oppressors “the light came, but the darkness did not see it.”   John was leanign in to whisper, “Stay strong, you’re not crazy, you’re not alone.  We might well die very soon for our beliefs, but we’re doing it for the right reasons– we’re following the word, the truth, the incarnate light.”

But in the hands of a middle-class, privileged, relatively comfortable person like myself, this elixir turns to poison.  For I’m all too eager to imagine that I’m more insightful than the folks in my world– that I understand the situation better than them, that I’ve got Jesus on my side, and that they’re just stubborn people devoted to darkness.  It’s too easy for me to imagine that Jesus is right, and everyone else is wrong (and since I’m with Jesus, I’m right too, at least by proximity).  But Jesus isn’t in my pocket.  Jesus is the word, who could speak into my life in a withering way.  Jesus is the light, who might illuminate all of my own evil inclinations and shortcomings.  Jesus is the truth, and he might rightly call me a liar.  But Jesus doesn’t roll like that; Jesus is gentle, kind, and loving.  Jesus is the patient light, waiting 30 years to allow a flicker into my brain to let me see that I’ve been reading this passage like an arrogant ingrate this whole time.

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