When our now-adult children were small, we would pile into the car after supper and ride around looking at Christmas lights. We deliberately chose neighborhoods whose streets were lined with glittering homes and with yards dotted by illuminated crèches, snowmen, and festively-dressed Snoopies.
Awe-inspired gasps, thrilled giggles, and shouts of “Look! Look!” tumbled out of the back seat as we rolled along. Light piercing the night cast a spell on all of us back then. Honestly, it does the same to me still.
My post-sunset drives are now mostly solo. On these shortest of days I am usually traveling home from the office or finishing the day’s rounds. And the neighborhoods through which I pass are frequently not those we would have chosen those many years ago for Christmas-light viewing.
On a recent night I drove one of my usual routes. Shotgun houses line these dimly-lit streets. In this sort of house, a single door opens to a hallway. That hallway runs down one side of the tiny wooden-frame structure to the back door. Cramped rooms lie on one side of that interior passage.
Peeling lead-based paint or battered asbestos siding inadequately seals the exterior walls. Renters furnish their stoops with the shabby love seats and rickety office chairs they’ve retrieved from trash heaps littering the curb. Evidence of their neighbors’ evictions.
House after house retreated from my sight into the gloom. And then, ahead to my left, green and red flickered in the corner of my eye. I slowed to see a strand of lights rimming the frame of the single window and another strand around the door of the house to my left.
Those few lights cast a new spell. John captures its essence in the opening chapter of his Gospel. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
And as Luke tells us, heaven bends low to touch the earth, to infuse the earth with the very presence of God. Among scruffy shepherds in the midst of a mucky field. In an outbuilding of an over-full hotel in crummy backwater of the world’s largest, most dangerous Empire. (Luke 2:1-20)
God joins us even in the midst of our gloom. The gloom of poverty, of racism. The gloom of loneliness or grief. The gloom of family dysfunction or addiction. The light shines. God is there. God is with us. And the gloom cannot overcome it.
When I got to the office the next day, I looked up the origin of shotgun houses. I had always heard that they got their name from that single, unobstructed hallway. People say that you could shoot a gun straight through the house from front to back without hitting a thing.
But what I learned in my brief research taught me about the meaning of the birth of Jesus.
Some scholars believe that the word “shotgun house” is actually a corruption of the West African term for that type of dwelling. Slaves originally built these cheap, practical dwellings in what is now Haiti. They brought the design with them to New Orleans when their masters relocated.
These slaves called this kind of dwelling a “shogon.” That word means “God’s house.”
They knew in their bones that, despite their cruel captivity and harsh treatment, God dwelled with them. To live at all—to live with God in their midst—was a profound act of rebellion. Rebellion against the forces of this world that would imprison, impoverish, diminish, harass, and oppress the children of God. To be light in the darkest gloom, refusing to be extinguished.
God sent Jesus into this world. And the address that God chose for Jesus’s birth turned out not to be 1600 Palatine Hill, Rome. Instead, Mary gave birth to her baby boy in a shed whose address was so obscure that Fed Ex probably wouldn’t have found it on time.
In Jesus we see that God comes to dwell in the midst of gloom. Not merely to provide the comfort of a little light to those who happen to believe. But to be the light that once and for all dispels the gloom—in all its forms—that too often hangs over the beloved children of God.
To follow Jesus is to be an inextinguishable light in the gloomy places of the world. No just on Christmas. But every day.