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She was laughing at him, his beautiful wife-well, soon to be his wife—laughing at his inability to bring forth light. His fingers trembled as again and again he struck the flint, failing to ignite a spark. Usually her laugh hooked his smile, but not now, not in this dark, cold, dirty now. No. His insides were a marsh gone stagnant, swollen with pent-up tears and the words of filth he’d wanted to shout all day, at every soldier they passed, and every household that turned them away.
Again he hit the flint; Mary giggled like he mimicked failure for her merriment. He had known her all her life; she seemed to always keep a laugh budding on her lips and a dance in her eyes. They had grown up neighbours, betrothed since they were both small. Would she have found a reason to laugh even if watching her tomb freshly cut?
He swallowed, his stomach pitching at this thought. There were vigilantes in their town who had vied to cut her grave for her supposed impurity. This was why he had not left her home with his mother, but brought her with him on this forced and untimely journey.
Untimely—he’d hoped to return before Mary’s pains, but today they had begun at dawn, waves which gained breadth and height as she walked beside him on the winding road through the rocky hills. And as the sun sagged, rather than seek a cave, they had pushed on, Mary singing the songs of their childhood into the dwindling light, songs a mother would sing to a child, until her mounting pain kept stealing away her sweet voice.
Stolen voices—during the last census his father had downed tools to make this trip. Family heads had had to report their household income to the foreigners; to be divided like a thin lamb amongst fat wolves. But two springs past, his father had been whistling as he whittled wood one day, and not woken up the next. His happy father: the trickle of gentle instruction in his ear, the steady hand on his shoulder—gone.
For months after his father’s death, he’d felt like all around him was a dream, and if he woke he would discover himself plummeting down a dark bottomless pit. His father’s death in an instant forged him into a man, with a household to carry. What had kept this weight from crushing him was Mary—Mary with her merry eyes, soon to blossom into a woman, soon to come fill his home with her laugh.
He had fallen into another bottomless pit when told Mary was seeded with a child that could not be his. “Her field has been ploughed,” said his mother. Never had he heard his sisters so simultaneously silent. “We will make you other arrangements.”
He’d gone up to the roof to be alone, biting his fists so as not to scream. He loved her. That night, after succumbing to sleep beneath the stars, he had dreamed madness, utter madness, and at first light, walked next door to fetch his promised wife. Taking her hand, he’d led her across his threshold. Mary had both laughed and cried. But while her mother wept relief, his mother and sisters brewed their shame into spite. Around them the village grumbled, scorning mercy, lusting after bloody sacrifice. He’d cautioned Mary not to leave his courtyard. When the census was called, he’d deemed it safest she travel with him.
They had reached his ancestral town just as the sun snuffed out. Why, why did he expect any welcome here? They had knocked on the doors of all his relatives, only to be turned away. Rooms full, was the repeated excuse. He should have sworn in each face. If they were strangers, would these households have lit lamps and baked new bread? They had travelled a week to reach this town, but juicy rumour was winged like a hunting bird, crossing the hills ahead of their feet.
The last house they had approached he knew to be owned by weavers, having visited here as a boy. Entering the courtyard he recalled that they kept looms in their lower room, not their livestock. The stable was separate to the dwelling, built into the courtyard wall. With Mary’s legs quivering and her breath tight, he didn’t bother to knock and risk unwelcome, but guided his wife into this refuge for beasts, sucking in shame as he spread his cloak on the filthy floor and eased her down to rest. And now here he was, trying and failing to light a lamp to pierce the swarming dark.
He was plummeting again, and nothing was a dream, and all his hope was in a dream. He hit the flint, gritting his teeth, eyes stinging tears. No flash, no spark. Mary reached out, calming his hands. “No need, the moon is bright,” she whispered.
It was, bulged round like a clucky hen, its tepid light misting with the darkness at the entranceway. The stars also seemed unnaturally engorged.
Her hands were warm, clasped over his, hovering above the little clay lamp. How were her hands warm? The night air was sickle-sharp and making steam of his panicked breaths. The shelter of the stable was a fake comfort, even the livestock had opted to remain outside, huddled where the last of the evening light would have graced the courtyard wall and seeped its mild heat into the rough cut stone.
Gripped within his fist, the flint cut into his skin. He looked down at the lamp, a blurry lump in the scummy moonshine. He had poured the last of their oil into its well and dipped the wick. Why would the flint not spark? The urge to light this lamp boiled inside him like a bruised cloud primed to split the sky with cracks of fire.
The moon dressed as the sun was not enough, or the puffed-up stars. The darkness needed cutting in every way possible, for tonight it felt dense as tar, and alive, a mob of muttering shadows. It was his mother telling him he was a waste of his father’s name, it was the black voices whispering that his dream was madness, God could not have spoken, it was the murmurs that the men of his town were amassing with stones in hand, it was the swarm of foreign soldiers riddling his country like wood-ants, and it was God’s four hundred years of pregnant silence, and the fear he was mistaken to believe it broken.
Mary dropped his hands, hers falling to the ground. With her head sagged, she rose to rock on all fours, uttering a low groan that bit into his bones.
No. Not yet. Not here. Bringing down his fist, Joseph smashed the lamp, coating his shaking knuckles in oil and jagged shards. Blackness solidified within his lungs.
‘Where are you?’ he flung a feeble prayer into the writhing dark.
“It’s time,” said Mary with impossible calm. “He is coming.”
I wrote Breaking Light to reflect on the dissonance I feel living in the overlap of old and new creation: my frustration with my inability to impact the darkness of this world, God’s apparent inaction in the face of global suffering, and my trust that God is present, building his Kingdom in ways I can’t imagine.
The moon is bright… Sometimes within my faith I feel an enormous amount of pressure to look on the bright side of everything. And there is much to be bright about! God is love. God is sovereign. The powers of darkness were defeated on the cross, and in Christ’s resurrection the new creation is seeded and growing. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old is gone, the new is here!” writes Paul to the newborn church.
Our Christ-ruled lives are new creation outposts; redeemed as God’s image-bearers, we shine as beacons which draw those around us to know God and join his mission of reconciliation. And beyond all this, the completed new creation awaits, glittering on the horizon.
Who God is, who we are in Christ, our eternal destination, none of these change however grim our circumstances, so we can always be thankful, joyful, and contented. So we live bright! We gather up the seeds of God’s light: God mirrored in every kindness, God’s fingerprints in the beauty of creation. We let God’s light take root in us and spread its fruit lavishly. But as the completed new creation is yet to come, we do all this while wallowing though brokenness and dark, both globally, and within our own chaotic lives.
The writhing dark… Cultivating light is essential to putting our resurrection into practice, but if we only recognise God in beautiful things, if we only measure our spiritual health in the expression of positive emotions, how are we to interpret all the moments when the darkness overwhelms and God appears absent? What do we do when our wounds refuse to clot, and we feel sad, frustrated, restless, and riddled with hollow places? Are these failures of faith, symptoms of doubt? Is this evidence that our recreation is stunted, akin to a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, only to discover its promised wings deformed and useless?
No flash, no spark… If you have ever sat in darkness desperately hitting the great truths of your faith together like flint stones and failing to ignite a fire, let me gently take your hands and reassure you this is okay. Weeping in a pile of dust and ashes can be as worshipful as singing jubilant hymns around a blazing bonfire.
We live in an overlapping age, both in an old world rotting away, and a new world being remade. Of course we are restless, this space between Jesus’ two comings is itself the chrysalis; God’s people are being birthed, a birth that will not be fully realised until Jesus comes again.
Light misting with the darkness… Some days the delighted wonder of all we are in Christ roars inside us like a waterfall, other days the grief of living in a sin-diseased world rises in us like a storm, flooding our inner rivers. Read any of Paul’s letters and you will see his faith holds in tension both these surging currents. This makes perfect sense, how can we love God and not lament all the ways God is rejected and our world a broken mess?
‘Where are you?’ When dark dominates, God can be hard to see. But while we must keep seeking God’s reflection in good and beautiful things, let’s not overlook that our pain, disappointment, and struggles, these are God in silhouette, God in fossil imprint, hollows only God is shaped to fill. We can sink in despair, or we can lever the weight of this lack to propel the pursuit faith requires, to stoke our desire to know God and grasp the full measure of his love. Our hurts, our longings, our restlessness, we can let them drive us to fill our holes with man-made idols, or we can recognise these aches as homesickness for the Eden we are built to live in, and use them to fuel our hope, so we can stand firm in faith until we finally reach the new world.
Here we will be complete. Here we will rest.
“He is coming.” God made us, God came back for us, God’s Spirit dwells in us now, and God is coming again to take us home. Let’s not forget, God does have an odd habit of appearing aloof when actually he is present in our lives in ways unimaginable.
The birth of God captivates me—God himself, sticky with afterbirth, swaddled in rags, and tucked in a feeding trough.
God came to live with us. We are this loved.
Oh—I find God’s pursuit of his people so exciting.
It’s hard not keep writing for hundreds of pages.
How do you keep faith when life is dark?
What ponderings did this story evoke for you?