I’m spending this year serving as the Youth Ministry Assistant in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. Along with the routine administrative work expected in an office setting, I provide assistance with some more creative projects. At the moment, I’m working on a series of daily devotions for the upcoming Advent season. Interested parties can sign up to receive two text messages every day, from the first Sunday of Advent at the end of November, all the way to Epiphany in early January. In the morning, they receive a relevant scripture verse to consider for the day, along with a related prayer in the evening. My job is to select the scriptures and write the prayers. And, to make things especially fun, these texts must be 140 characters or less. No easy task, but I’m very much enjoying the challenge so far.
As I was selecting scripture passages, I came across one that was very familiar. It is one of the opening passages of the Gospel of John. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Not only is this passage familiar, but it’s short. Perfect for the requirements of my project, but also something to watch out for. Short passages are easy to gloss over and forget about, especially ones as familiar as this. We think we know what this passage means. We’re convinced that it’s simple, too obvious to spend too much time considering. But let’s pause for a minute. There are many things that this little passage does not say. For example, it asserts that the light shines, but it doesn’t promise that we will see or appreciate the light when it comes. Need a real world parallel? This wonderful job I’ve been given for the year. It’s giving me valuable work skills, introduced me to hard-working, kind people, and makes sure that I’m always busy and fulfilled, which fends off boredom and loneliness. But on days when I’m stressed and tired, robbed of an opportunity to lounge on my bed with a book or reconnect with old college friends, the “light” of these benefits may go unnoticed. This passage also doesn’t promise that there won’t be moments when it seems like the darkness is winning. We in Servant Year have probably noticed this already. Many of our placements involve work with vulnerable populations. Despite their hard work, good intentions, and desperate need, people continue to suffer. We pray that our little bits of help may be a “light” to them, but cynicism can make it all seem pointless.
Obviously, this passage has great theological meanings for Christianity. But Servant Year has made me see it through the lens of our experience this year. You come into a program like Servant Year so optimistic. Optimistic about yourself and the personal growth you’re sure to accomplish. Optimistic about the people you’ll meet and the impact you might have. And then you come up against all sorts of darkness. The darkness of the world around us, that makes our idealistic vision hard to achieve, and sometimes, even as our hearts break to say it, impossible. The darkness of our own flaws, when we’re forced to admit that sometimes, even when people we’ve come to value and respect need our help, we sometimes just don’t want to help. In these moments, the message of this beautiful scripture can seem hollow. “The darkness did not overcome it.” Really? Because that darkness is seeming pretty darn powerful. Not to mention stubborn, since it keeps. Coming. Back.
That’s why we need to reexamine this piece of scripture. It’s not so simple. The presence of darkness in our work and lives is not a sign of tragic failure, or that the world around us is crumbling. This year, we must remember that darkness is an opportunity for light to show itself.
Now, I say this as though it’s easy. I know it’s not. And I also know that I haven’t suggested anything terribly radical here. We all know this to be true. No pain, no gain, as the saying goes. We know it. It’s a cliche. We’re probably sick of hearing it. But here it is again, for those moments when you need a little reminder. In darkness and light, we’re in this together.
Annie is serving as Youth Ministry Assistant for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania this year.