“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2). Writing during a time of national trauma, the prophet described both the despair of the people of covenant and the promise of a child to be born.
While the original setting of the text in the eighth century most likely pertains to an expected heir of the Davidic dynasty and the ceremony of enthronement, Christian interpreters have found in this oracle a clear witness to Jesus Christ. A rumbling bass intones this text in Handel’s Messiah, and we recognize ourselves as those who walk in darkness, waiting for the light to break upon us.
As a nation, we are living through a time of soul-searching about violence, guns, vulnerable children and their teachers, and fractious politics. More darkness than light prevails as self-interest trumps the common good. The rhetoric in many quarters is less than mature and reasoned. What would Isaiah say to our day?
I believe he would remind us that God is at work in our midst, even as God was working to uphold justice in earlier times. “For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire” (9:5). Peace will overcome war, he proclaims; cleansing fire will extinguish oppressive actions against God’s own. Such is the prophetic hope that sustains belief—then and now.
Although the text suggests that the Lord of hosts “will do this,” we know that God does not choose to or perhaps cannot accomplish this without human collaboration. Such is the dignity of our calling as humans; we are to be God’s emissaries of light in the darkness of our sinful generation. We are to be instruments that make known what has been made known to us about this child, just as the shepherds were commissioned (Luke 2:17). And so we tell the story of his coming once again, realizing that the dawn from on high breaks upon us (Luke 1:28).
The light of the world is Jesus, and we welcome his darkness-piercing work anew. His light illumines practices of darkness—greed, hatred, intolerance, immorality, and violence. He calls us to bear his light, remembering that the “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” as John’s Gospel reminds us.
William Byrd offers these words in his hymn for compline:
O Christ who art the light and day,
Thou drivest darksome night away;
We know thee as the Light of light,
Illuminating mortal sight.
We need the gladsome light and grace that Jesus brings, or we will continue to walk in darkness.
Molly T. Marshall
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