A Light Among the Shadows
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." -Jesus (John 8:12)
There is something remarkable on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Just south of the small town, known more for who was born there, stands an impressive fortress, Herodium. It’s the highest point of the entire Judean wilderness and from Bethlehem it would dominate your view as you look southeast. It is an incredible feat of engineering for that time period, and even by modern standards it is still impressive. King Herod the Great built this fortress to celebrate his military strength and ensure he had a path to escape should his kingdom be attacked from the North. This fortress was built in a way that should strike fear in the hearts of anyone doubting Herod’s greatness. It was built so that as you see it, you think “this has to be the strongest, safest place to be in this entire wilderness…”
If you lived in Bethlehem at the time, it stood as a visceral reminder of who was in control. Ultimate power and authority in this region belonged to a mad man. A man so twisted and consumed by a lust for power that he murdered members of his family, even his wife. He rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem in order to preserve his status, a man for the people! In his mind, long after he departed this earth, there would be architectural masterpieces throughout Judea that stood as a reminder that no one was greater than King Herod.
He knew what it took to express power in this world. He knew what it took to place fear in people’s hearts. And in a tiny town, south of Jerusalem, the inhabitants knew the long shadow of Herodium represented all that was evil in this world.
How much do we feel the long shadow of this world growing over our small communities? Do we see the architecture of another kingdom and feel as if their is no hope? We travel down the road and see constant reminders built to show us this world must be all there is - the fortress is strong - surely there is nothing stronger? Do we buy into the fear that Herod is all powerful? Do we fret as the darkness grows darker?
As we approach advent, we live as the inhabitants of Bethlehem. We live in the shadow of all that is evil in this world, yearning for some tangible, real hope. There are some days when it looks as if there is a Herodium on every corner - constant reminders that the shadow of evil is growing. We wake one morning to hear the decree that every male under 2 must be killed. Herod’s long reach enters our very homes, destroying those we love and cherish. We approach the end of another year: some seeking refuge from months of difficulty, others entering the holiday with reminders of loss and grief. What good can possibly exist in these shadows?
But we celebrate advent - ‘the arrival’ - because even against all hope, all darkness, a small spark of light can be seen. Not a temporary, fading light - but the author of all Light. In a stable in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph become less aware of the towering fortress of Herodium. They looked at the straw and saw the hope of the world, crying, helpless...a baby...the fulfillment of every prophecy for hope...renewal...restoration. Emmanuel - God is with us.
As a community, we cannot buy into the lie that Herodium will outlast the stable in Bethlehem. Physically it may - but everything it represents will surely be destroyed. How tempting to sit in each other’s houses in Bethlehem and only speak of what we see outside - “Have you heard of the latest with Herod? Did you see what else he has built?” - while in our own backyard the savior of the world has arrived. How tempting it is to push each other into a spirit of fear rather than trust - fear feels more real, more tangible - trust that a savior will be born, feels distant, ambiguous. How tempting it is to buy into Herod’s persona of power and believe that even in his evil, maybe he is strong enough to protect us after all.
It is much easier to trust in the strength of Herodium. It’s in front of us, it’s large, it’s strong, and it was built with such confidence. To trust in a King that arrived in the gutters, in the shadows of this fortress, means we have to give up our desire for earthly power and control. The grace of the Gospel dismantles the “Herodiums” of the world brick by brick. God’s love, given to us through Christ, means the light in the shadows only grows brighter. Our communities no longer live in the fear of Herod, we live in the hope of Christ. This advent, may our communities live in Bethlehem with a different vision. May we look to the coming Savior more than the fortresses of this world that surround us. May we encourage one another to live in the shadows as the embodiment of the Light. May we together refuse to give in to the belief that the kingdom of this world will never end. May we celebrate the coming of our King, the Savior, the hope for all mankind.
What does it look like for us to embody 'the arrival' of Jesus? How can our communities live as light among the shadows?