audio for “Light-infused” by Martin Malina

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …what came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people … The true light, which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.”[1]

These are the first words from John’s Gospel, for this first day of firsts (the first day and Sunday of a new month, the first day and Sunday of a new year, and the First Sunday after Christmas).

Looking back over the past year, I realize I’ve discovered, or re-covered a renewed appreciation for receiving mail. Especially at Christmas. 

And I don’t mean e-mail. I mean opening old-fashioned, real paper, mailbox-visiting cards in the mail.

Thank you to all who gave me Christmas cards this year! I enjoyed opening each one. 

When I visited my mom’s apartment at Christmas, we spent time looking at her decorations and commenting on the Christmas cards she received and displayed on a table beside her advent wreath. Several of these cards came from far-away and overseas. 

One caught my attention. It was a photograph whose centrepiece was baby Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by spruce trees decorated with real candles. I immediately responded favourably to the real spruce trees—it reminded me of the beauty of creation common in Canada. 

But it was baby Jesus, something about the way he was lying in his makeshift crib—the feeding trough—that, frankly, disturbed me. And it took me a moment to understand why. It was the way his little arms were spread out and feet were crossed that reminded me of the end of Jesus’ life on earth. 

Published by Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, photo from print by Vineyard Publishing Co. Seoul, Korea

As I contemplated this depiction of baby Jesus, I realized I wasn’t just looking at a baby boy born in a Bethlehem barn during the reign of King Herod in first century Palestine. In that moment, time expanded to include both the trajectory of Jesus’ life on earth—the future, and the past—long before Jesus was born.

Let’s start in the past. The Incarnation was in the works since the beginning. The opening verses from the Gospel of John echo the first days of creation described in the first book of the bible, Genesis. 

What did God create on the first day? Light. Light is the subject of the first day of creation.[2] Light is the first action of God on earth. The light first shone when the world was created, “when God joined in unity with the physical universe and became the light inside of everything.”[3]

The true light was already shining in the shadowed places. The light was already shining in the darkness before Jesus, the human person, was born that first Christmas. That is why John writes that the light was coming into the world; it’s an ongoing work of God.

So instead of saying that God came into the world through Jesus, maybe it is more accurate at Christmas to assert that Jesus came out of an already light-infused world.[4]

With J. Philip Newell, I would assert that salvation in Jesus is not the bringing of light to a creation that doesn’t have it, but rather “the liberating of light”[5] from within, a light that is already there.

This realization brings me to my knees in confession. Because today, the problem we deal with is our resistance to the light. The problem is how we refuse God’s love and presence in our already light-infused world. Pray with me for God first to open the eyes of our minds and hearts to see in the shadowed places what God is doing. 

We see in the original Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth that there’s really nothing pretty about the first Christmas.[6] All the ways human beings end up resisting the light within us and the earth is personified by the ruthless King Herod.

Right from the start of Jesus’ life, Herod is threatened politically by Jesus. Right from the start, Jesus is the target of the authorities and political powers. The slaughter of the innocent children[7] highlights the gross injustices of our world whose selfish, power-hungry ends will justify the means at all costs—even killing children. Jesus, already at his birth, lies in the fore-shadow of the cross, and his eventual death at the hands of the powers-that-be.

The way baby Jesus’ feet and arms were positioned on that Christmas card was, in my mind, like Jesus in scenes depicting his death on the cross. I wonder if that connection—between Jesus’ birth and death—was intended by the artist of that Christmas card.

One lesson we can take away here is that the birth of Jesus does not remove the presence of evil in the world. It was true in the first days of creation. It was true at the birth of Jesus. And it is true today.

Another lesson along the way, which is the Gospel—good news, is the light still shines. It is still there, sometimes burning brightly for us to see. And sometimes, we don’t perceive it at all. And we may need to re-focus on where God is revealed and how God frees the light shining within our hearts and in this world. 

On the journey now with Jesus, here is some good advice from Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, on how to journey with Jesus when we find ourselves in the darkness of night and in the shadows of life:

Go slowly; Consent to it; But don’t wallow in it; Know it as a place of germination; And growth; Remember the light; Take an outstretched hand if you find one; Exercise unused senses; Find the path by walking in it; Practice trust; Watch for the dawn.[8]

On the first day of this new year, 2023, may you know moments of light, moments of grace, moments of love, as the dawn breaks anew.

[1] John 1:1-4,9

[2] Genesis 1:3-5

[3] Richard Rohr, “The First Incarnation” in Daily Meditations (, 18 December 2022)

[4] Ibid., 19 December 2022

[5] J. Philip Newell, The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1999), p.11-13.

[6] Richard Rohr, ibid., 21 December 2022

[7] Matthew 2

[8] Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, “What to do in the darkness”, in Holly W. Whitcom, Seven Spiritual Gifts of Waiting (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2005), p.38.

A sentimental Christmas?

We say that ‘Christmas is for the children’. Especially, parents and grandparents will focus much of their energies to make sure the children are happy: 

That the presents they receive will excite them, 

That the rituals around the Christmas tree and fireplace will fuel their anticipation and wonder, 

That the events in church and community the family attends will reinforce their understanding of the meaning of it all. 

And that all these efforts will bring delight to those who watch and attend them. And make it all worth the effort.

The accounts of Jesus’ birth – the Christ child born in Bethlehem – in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke especially reinforce our emphasis on children: The story of the Word made flesh in Jesus begins with Jesus the babe. The story of Jesus that ends at the cross of Golgotha and the empty tomb begins in a baby’s cries from a feeding trough in a stable for animals. 

Yes, Christmas is by the children and for the children. It is no wonder many of the annual Christmas pageants today are performed by children.

And yet, the story of faith compiled over decades and centuries into what we have in the bible challenges us. What the early Christians give us disrupts our sentimental bias in how we celebrate the Christmas season.

Let’s go back in time a week ago. First, December 21, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, was traditionally the feast day observed for Saint Thomas, the doubting one, who was martyred in India in the mid first century. Then, December 26 is the feast day for Saint Stephen, whose violent murder at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious we read about in the book of Acts.[1]

And, finally, today, the first Sunday of Christmas, the church commemorates the ‘Holy Innocents’ – the children of Bethlehem – who were murdered at the hands of Herod trying to get at Jesus and eliminate any potential threat to his despotic hold on power.[2]

Not exactly a Christmas observance that brings the warm fuzzies. Why has the tradition included these rather violent and distressing facts about Christian faith so close to Christmas? Wouldn’t we rather put off such disturbing elements until long after the holidays when the kids are back to school and we return to the mundane realities of our lives (when we can ignore the truth of the faith)? Wouldn’t we rather preserve the genteel, Hallmark images cradled in soft-white light where all the children are squealing with delight?

The church, in its wisdom, pierces through our illusions and disrupts our escapism. In compiling the stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew, the Gospel writer, chose to express a profound care for the children – especially those who suffered under the violent injustices of corrupt and despotic rulers. Matthew will not ignore what happened around Jesus’ birth, but will bring voice to it. Expose it for what it is.

This Christmas story is a very human, and a very real, story of life and death, sin and grace. None of it can be ignored nor dismissed, and certainly not simply in order to cradle our cocktail-numbed minds. The Gospel pours cold water on us and calls us to ‘wake up’ in the face of our reality:

That following Christ will sometimes be a rocky road, to put it mildly – as the ancient martyrs of the faith exemplified by their faithfulness and service. That following Christ will sometimes shock us onto our knees in lamenting the evil in the world – when children elsewhere and in our own communities suffer incredible injustice and violence.

That following Christ will sometimes call us into risky and urgent action that doesn’t give time for proper goodbyes. That following Christ will sometimes call for unconditional grace and acceptance of the stranger – as Egypt welcomed the fleeing holy family refugees from neighboring Judea. 

We don’t care for the children if we turn a blind eye to injustice, especially at Christmas. We don’t care for the children when we insist on avoiding the chaos and upheaval that our faith implies. Christmas isn’t just about sentimentality. It is more about taking responsibility and learning from the witness of the Gospel message.

One element of the storytelling from the Gospel today catches my eye: It is the rapid plot movement. This story reflects anything but a sedate, static tableau:

One moment, the holy family is in Bethlehem being visited upon by the magi; the next moment they are fleeing to Egypt. Then, Herod reacts, is infuriated by the magi’s deception, and sends his murdering squads to Bethlehem. Even though it would have been some time passing until Herod’s death, the story-telling doesn’t permit but a breath before another angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream to ‘get up’ and return his family to the land of Israel. But not to Bethlehem where potential threat still exists, but to Nazareth. And all of this in ten short verses.

The pace of the story-telling itself evokes responsibility, not sentiment – not even a lingering, inert contemplation. Joseph doesn’t even have time to think, just react. And trust himself and especially trust God. The truth of the story is expressed in behavior and action.

The witness of the story-tellers of old have something to say to us, who very much like to sit-back and put-up-our-feet during the Christmas season. Perhaps this word to us is a reminder not to forget to take up the mantle of faith, to do our part in meaningful action and behavior. And be responsible, as the body of Christ, to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today.

“For if the babe does not again take flesh in us today, the Bethlehem star is but an optical illusion leading to nothing. 

“If we are not empowered to offer a gift to the one in need, then there are no wise men searching. 

“If there is no praise or joy within our hearts, then there are no angels singing; no shepherds watching.”[3]

May these days of Christmas bring to us a deepened awareness of the care we have and express for this dark, broken world. And in so doing fulfill our responsibility as bearers of the Christ child.

This responsibility is also a gift God gives us at Christmas. It is a gift that is activated in us by the witness of all the saints of old.

[1]Acts 6:8—7:60

[2]Matthew 2:16-18

[3]Bishop Michael Pryse, Christmas Message from Bishop Pryse (, December 24, 2019)