Wisdom 9:1-6, 9-11+Psalm 33:1-9+Colossians 1:15-20+John 1:1-14
Starting with the First Sunday of Advent at the end of November, we have been using a new lectionary, as most of you know, with new translations of the readings, emphasizing and elevating the stories of women in scripture that have, for the most part, been incomplete or overlooked. Through the past four Sundays, we have focused on stories of pregnancy and annunciation. None of these sets of readings in the Year W lectionary have matched the opening prayer, or Collect of the Day, normally assigned for these Sundays, so I have been writing new ones.
What this meant was that, on the very First Sunday of Advent, I did not get to pray my all-time favorite collect which asks God to “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” I slipped it into my sermon, but it wasn’t quite the same. The compiler and translator of the Year W lectionary we are using is an African American scholar and priest who voiced her objections to hearing that Collect read in church that morning. Dr. Wil Gafney wrote:
My darkness, my blackness is not trash to be cast away no matter what the Collect my Church prayed over me says. No matter what lectionary you use, there is no excuse to continue to perpetuate the notion that blackness and darkness are bad or even evil. The Church is not penitent while it perpetuates and sanctifies white supremacist theology and liturgy.
After reading this, I looked ahead to the gospel assigned for this morning, knowing that Dr. Gafney had followed the traditional gospel readings for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and there I found it, “The light shines in the bleakness, and the bleakness did not overtake it” (John 1:5).
If you are at all familiar with John’s Prologue, as the beginning of this gospel is called, you will know that it has traditionally been translated as “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” or as the King James Version says, “The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.”
Throughout Dr. Gafney’s translations of the texts, darkness is replaced with bleakness or shadow, except in cases where it refers to the holy, as in “God dwells in thick darkness.” She explains in the preface notes that while race as a construct is not present in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures, the way they have been used throughout history is to set up a positive/negative binary between light and dark, and that has been used historically to aid and abet the oppression of dark-skinned people.
And you are probably sitting there wondering what any of this has to do with Christmas morning.
As I said a moment ago, John’s Prologue is customarily read on Christmas Day or the Sunday after. There is no angelic host, no Mary and Joseph, no Bethlehem or shepherds or magi from the East. No, there is only the Word. “In the beginning,” John says, echoing the very first words of scripture, signaling a new Genesis, a new creation for those who follow Jesus. The emphasis throughout John’s gospel is on Jesus as God, that “what we see in Jesus is what we can expect from God. Jesus is no messenger, but rather is God, creating and redeeming as only God can,” as Lutheran preacher David Lose says.
What we can expect from God is what we find in Jesus. “The image of the invisible God,” (1:15) and “For in Jesus, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (1:19), as we read in Colossians.
If we have some understanding of what Jesus was about, then we know what God is about, and then we go and do likewise so that others will know about the abundant love and grace that is our God.
We know that these days, belief in any kind of God, much less a God who became human, is on a big downward slide. When someone tells me that they don’t believe in God, I ask them to tell me about this God they don’t believe in. More often than not I hear tales of the hurt that the Church has caused them, of a judgmental God who hates them because of the gender identity or sexual orientation, of a God who allows clergy to abuse members of their congregations, and on and on. There’s always a lot of unpacking to do that has nothing to do with God and everything to do with how we have distorted the image of God in the way we talk about the bible, what we think it says, and what that means for us.
This is why the work of scholars like Dr. Gafney is so important. Yes, it may make us uncomfortable to realize that using the images of light and darkness can cause harm to others. She also wrestles with translations of the words for servant and slave, because to omit the word “slave” from scripture is to misread what was normative in the Ancient Near East as well as the time of Jesus and after. And we ignore it at our peril.
On this day then, we are reminded of what the significance is of the Word becoming flesh, of the lengths to which God would go to demonstrate infinite love for us, and through whom we are “empowered to become children of God” (1:12). If that’s the case, it means we love as God loves, forgive as God forgives, care for others as God does, and even when we fail at all of these things, know that God loves us anyway.
And so the light shines in the bleakness, because we are the ones who can push the needle a little bit further in changing the narrative that there is something wrong with being Black, showing love for our darker skinned neighbors in using language that does not exclude. As the recently deceased feminist writer and scholar bell hooks said, “I believe whole-heartedly that the only way out of domination is love, and the only way into really being able to connect with others, and to know how to be, is to be participating in every aspect of your life as a sacrament of love.”
May this Christmas be the beginning of a slate as clean as new-fallen snow, living our lives as a sacrament of love in the name of the one who is Love incarnate.
 Wilda C. Gafney, A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W, (New York: Church Publishing, 2021) xxiii.