Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, Love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
The beautiful, moving Silent Night, in its second verse, captures one of the most beautiful images in all of Scripture. It refers to Jesus as “love’s pure light”. This rich turn of phrase feels like Christmas. It captures imagery from the stories of Jesus’ birth, like the bright star which guides the shepherds to the young family. It reminds us of Christmas lights and evokes feelings of hope and clarity.
It also echoes the Gospel of John’s opening ballad to the coming of Christ:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it … The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
John describes Jesus as the light of the world, shining in the darkness. Silent Night takes hold of this metaphor, and the deeply held sentiment that God is love, and announces Jesus as “love’s pure light”. God is love, and Jesus is the light of that love coming into the world.
It’s easy to understate the significant choice of “light” as a metaphor for Jesus. It will fundamentally define who Jesus is and what Jesus means to the world. The way Jesus moves and acts in the world is like light shining into darkness.
Have you ever been told that “one bad apple spoils the barrel”? Or have you ever been told to stay away from something because it’s “dirty”, and you are “clean”? Or perhaps you’ve heard the old parable asking you if you would eat a pie if you knew there was something unseemly baked into it, even if it was only just a little bit?
Sometimes we get stuck in metaphors like these. We use “dirty” and “spoiled”, as opposed to “clean” or “good” to talk about how we move and act in the world. These metaphors shape how we see each other, how we talk about things, and ultimately how we live. We think of ourselves as clean, and of other things or even people as dirty. Following this metaphor, we do what one does with clean things: we keep them away from dirt. After all, if you throw a clean shirt into mud, the shirt gets dirty, and the mud stays mud. Right?
But Jesus, the Gospels, and Silent Night see it differently. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
When it comes to light and darkness, the metaphor changes. Light always overcomes darkness, and never the other way around. If you light a candle in a dark room, even if the amount of darkness so overwhelms the amount of light, the light itself never changes. The light is not “darkened” by darkness. Rather, the darkness is always “lit” by the light, however small.
In this way, we understand the forces of good to be more powerful than the forces of evil. Jesus will go on to make an entire ministry out of showing everyone that his “cleanness” is more contagious than even the worst sinner’s “dirtiness”. He will touch lepers, speak to outsiders, and dine with sinners, and never become less holy for it; for Jesus understands himself to be light shining into darkness, not cleanliness protecting itself from dirt.
As we sing Silent Night this season, and remember the coming of Jesus to be “love’s pure light”, we may come to see ourselves similarly as lights in the world. However much darkness there is, the pure light of love remains unaffected. May we be people of light, more than people of cleanness. Our world needs light; our world needs Love.