Light in the gloom

December 16, 2023

How we long for Christmas cheer and comfort as the northern winter solstice approaches, and the nights get darker and longer!

For the news also seems to get gloomier and more depressing. This week has been a roller coaster of emotions. No peace is in sight in Palestine, the birthplace of Jesus, as the Hamas continue to hold 132 hostages taken in the violent attack of October 7. Civilian casualties mount and the Israeli army faces the devil’s dilemma of uprooting a deeply-embedded terrorist organisation financed by both Moscow and Brussels.

This week Vladimir Putin declared there will be no peace in Ukraine until he achieves his goals of total victory: ’denazification’, demilitarisation and total capitulation to his autocratic dictatorship. In face of Republican opposition, Joe Biden softened his promise this week to stand with Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’ to ‘as long as we can’. The prospects of a second term for a former president, who says he believes Putin over his own intelligence agencies, incredibly does not seem to perturb many American supporters, including numerous Christians, yet sends shivers of horror through most European corridors of power.

Not through Viktor Orbán’s offices though, opposing Ukraine’s accession to the EU and the granting of much-needed EU financial support for that beseiged land. Nor through those of the new speaker of the Dutch parliament, extreme-rightist Martin Bosman, and his boss, Geert Wilders, whose party won the most seats in the recent Dutch elections. 


You don’t really want to read this news any more than I want to write about it. But we can’t hide from reality. Indifference and ignorance among the well-meaning is allowing those with dangerous ideas into positions of power. As Timothy Garton Ash wrote this week, Europe’s future is on the line. Will we choose for dictatorship or democracy?

I may not be optimistic about the near future, but I am hopeful. Despite the dark and gloom, there are points of light. 

For also this week there was good news. COP28 delivered a deal calling on all nations to transition away from using fossil fuels. Donald Tusk has returned to the prime minister’s office in Poland and aims to reverse the undermining effects on democracy of eight years of rightist rule by the Law & Justice party (PiS). And in Brussels, despite Orbán’s vocal opposition, the EU Council decided to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova.

Ultimately, however, our hope is not in our political or military leaders. The profound Christmas message of light in the midst of gloom is that the defenseless babe of Bethlehem was none other than God in the flesh, the creator and sovereign of all creation and all creatures. One day he will return to balance the books of history.

Unfortunately lost on the partying crowds, this is what the stars and candles and Christmas lights represent: the fulfilment of the prophetic words of Isaiah, Micah and others, even including the pagan seer Balaam. The people living in darkness would see a great light. The child would be called the Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The child would be born in Bethlehem. A star would come out of Jacob.… 

Points of light

The Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn was a master of the technique of chiaroscuro, contrasting light and darkness to tell the Christmas story. In his etched prints of nocturnal nativities, the light illuminating the darkness – moonlight, lamplight, candlelight, starlight – was a metaphor of the Light coming into the world to save, to restore, to heal and to redeem. Rembrandt devoted much of his career depicting the events of the Nativity in prints as well as in oils and pencil. One of the most innovative printmakers of all time, he experimented with techniques and materials to increase the intensity of the points of light in his night-time scenarios.

The Angel appearing to the Shepherds (1634) depicts the night being lit by a blaze of heavenly light as an angel tells the terrified shepherds not to fear for a baby had been born who was Christ the Lord.  

The source of light in The Adoration of the Shepherds: a night piece (c.1652) is the shepherds’ lamp, illuminating the gaze of the shepherds focused on the illuminated faces of Mary and Jesus (above).

Other nocturnal prints depict the Holy Family, tell of the flight to Egypt, and the Presentation in the Temple when Simeon thanks God for the coming of the Light to the Gentiles. 

Another, The star of the kings (c.1651), though not strictly a nativity scene, captures the celebration of Three Kings on the streets of Amsterdam when children would go carolling with a paper star-shaped lantern. 

Whenever we see a Christmas star these dark days, we can be encouraged that the Light of the Gentiles has indeed come, a light that shines in the darkness and cannot be put out (John 1:8). 

Rembrandt encourages us this Christmas to be hopeful, to be joyful, and not to be afraid, despite the darkness around us. 

Till next week,

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