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.
-John 1:1-5 (NRSV)
Words mean everything. The way we understand novels, poetry, movies, plays, and even our most basic conversations hinges on the way we understand the individual words. Clearly, as some have pointed out, words themselves don’t carry meaning unless they are in context. The context of a word gives that word its definition. Even so, our understanding of an entire discourse can stand or fall on our (mis)understanding of one word.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
For so long I have understood “darkness” in this verse to be our sinister, sinful nature. Darkness stands for that part of us, or that entirety of us, that does wrong, that evilly plots against God and against God’s son, the Word which was from the beginning. Darkness is our twisted sinfulness. Therefore the light shone among us, revealing the darkness that lives within us, a darkness that, although profound, could not extinguish the light of Jesus.
That is certainly part of it, but what if the word “darkness” has other meanings? What if there are other ways of understanding “darkness” that have less to do with my malignant nature? Are there not times when darkness reigns and I am not to blame?
The diagnosis that you only have six months to live.
The news of the tragic accident that stole your friend away.
The unexpected loss of a loved one: a parent, a child, a sibling.
These, too, are moments of darkness. These, too, are the times in which we need a little light. For many of us, these moments define darkness. If asked to describe their darkest moment, some people will speak of a rock-bottom experience caused by their own life choices, but many will speak of these experiences where pain, death, or suffering attacked unexpectedly leaving them numb and confused. With light is visible, the old, hope-filled refrains sound untrue in the midst of such shocking despair, so darkness prevails.
In that darkness, the Word came in light, illuminating the shadows, and the darkness could not overcome it.
It’s a hopeful thought. It’s an inspiring thought. We can trust that the Word of God, Jesus, is light enough for our darkest moments. Wherever that life-filled light of Jesus shines, the deathly darkness will lose. It may not seem that way, even for a very long time, but we can cling to the hope that the light will overcome.
I’m not claiming to have done an extensive exegesis on the word “darkness” in John’s Gospel and letters, but this resonates with me. This rings truer to my current experience in the world. Yes there is evil. Yes those sinister parts of us exist that can only be described as darkness, but sometimes darkness happens to us. It attacks as a thief in the night by no doing of our own, and the only hope we have is a light, a savior outside of ourselves that enters into our despair and hopelessness, destroying the darkness that binds us by bringing us into a new day.
John proclaims such a savior; the Word that was from the beginning has entered our dark world, and the darkness could not overcome him.
Maybe such words seem distant, an echo of a hope once known. Then again, maybe a distant ray of hope is all we need to guide us from darkness back into light.