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.
Fear me–I learned to drive in Chicago. Though I have since turned it down a notch, I can still scare Debbie with my crazy Chicago driving habits, especially if I am in heavy, frustrating traffic. I know people who won’t brave the Dan Ryan or the Kennedy or the Edens because so many other drivers are the immortal embodiment of Mayhem (like me). That’s never bothered me. Once I get going, I can bob and weave through cars like nobody’s business. I once crossed five lanes in completely stopped traffic to make my exit 500 feet ahead.
There is one driving scenario, however, that terrifies me: driving in the dark. I’m not talking about “dark-but-lots-of-streetlights-or-other-light-pollution” dark. I’m talking about real, pitch darkness. Without my glasses, any object more than a few inches from my face shows up blurry. My glasses are scratched, smudged, cracked and broken, which means that the only things allowing me to see are also interfering with that ability. My car’s wind shield is never clean, because I can never remember to clean it. And I’m pretty sure my headlights are long past their glory days.
When I find myself driving long past sundown on a road miles from the nearest town with no lights, my knuckles go white. My heart rate shoots up, and all I can think is, “Please don’t die–there’s a hockey game on tonight.”
Nobody told me it was so dark in the North Woods of Wisconsin. I have never driven in such complete darkness. The lane and shoulder lines are hidden by snow this time of year. There are no guard rails between the road and the ditch, which seems like a deliberate oversight intended to mess with people like me. Only on the sharpest of curves is there a warning sign or guide arrows. Because there are so few towns, all of which are small, there is no ambient light pollution. If my headlights don’t shine on it, I can’t see it. If someone starts coming the other way, the brightness of their headlights blinds me, leaving me to pray that I won’t run off the road before the other person passes by.
Isaiah talks about “the people who walked in darkness” and “those who lived in a land of deep darkness”. When it is just a word on a page, darkness seems so… harmless. Trite. Common. Banal. But when I drive through it, darkness is positively terrifying. Theoden King was dead wrong– one should fear the darkness, because one cannot see deer, ditches, trees, yetis, or the vashta nerada in the dark (quick check: how many shadows do you have?).
It is easy to see why, in the prophet’s mind, darkness is an image for oppression. It smothers you, takes away your sight and your sense of up and down (I still turn off the light and trip on the way to the bed because of this). It has no discernible beginning or end, and no path of escape, except those paths that lead to pain, injury, death, or worse, expulsion.
But, while darkness seems absolute and unbreakable, it can be dispersed. It doesn’t take much. I saw a commercial the other day informing me that the human eye can see the light of a candle at night 10 miles away (that’s 146 football fields, folks). Even that tiny bit of light is enough to break through what was once an overpowering darkness.
I am glad that a little light can do so much–it makes the darkness seem a little less scary, a little less overpowering. Isaiah’s words are a comfort and a promise that light can and will shine in the darkness. The nights here are terrifyingly dark, but, like clockwork, the sun rises again. That’s no little candle (or moon, or space station), but a great light, and I never have to worry about its absence or presence.
In the same way, the incarnation, Immanuel, “God-with-us”, shines a big ol’ spotlight into the heart of human oppression. After his initial proclamation, the first words of Christ’s ministry were, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It is both a warning and a promise–repent, because none can hide in the dark any more; and give thanks, because the kingdom of heaven has come near, its effects are already being felt, and its arrival is unstoppable. When God is present, oppression ends, the darkness is pierced, and all within it can see again.
Now if only I could mount it to the roof of my car…