Light Shines in the Darkness

Author Emily Rova-Hegener meditates on the motif of light and darkness in the Gospel of John

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.—John 1:5

(Photo by Emily Rova-Hegener)

When our family lived in Oslo, Norway and served as Global Mission Associates between 2015-2019, we experienced a different kind of winter darkness than we were used to. We moved there in June just before the summer solstice, when the sun is at the highest point. The light at that time of the year is intense, as it warms and soaks through your body, mind and spirit in ways that are indescribable. Children run around at all hours of the day and night because honestly, who can tell what time it is when the sun is out for 21 of the 24 hours a day? Sometimes dinner is missed and served at 10pm because   being, playing and soaking up the light when one lives so far North, we learned … does have an expiration date.  

In the weeks following the summer solstice on June 21st, people spoke as if we were now doomed. The turning point had come and morketid—the dark times—would be upon us in the coming months. From then on, the light would begin to dim with each passing day, creeping in like a slow depression. Before we knew it, the light DID in fact disappear quite quickly. What initially felt mystical and magical as we left for work in the dark and came home in the dark, wore off after a bit. The dark time affected our spirits, bodies and minds, but something happened during the first Sunday in Advent. Overnight, everything changed. It was as if elves had been hard at work and as we walked through our neighborhood, we noticed glimmers of light. Hanging from windows, sitting on sills, strung across doorways were lit candles and glowing stars. It felt incredibly “koselig”(cozy), as if in those spaces, people intentionally left a nightlight on for the world so humanity wouldn’t get lost. 

The words from the Gospel of John suddenly became real. 

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.” Amen to that. 

In comparison to the far north of Norway, I was told Oslo’s winter darkness was easy. In the north of Norway, the sun disappeared in November and wouldn’t make an appearance again for a couple of months and even when it was ready to return, it came back … ONE. MINUTE. AT. A. TIME. Curious to know and experience this kind of darkness, I traveled to visit friends in Tromsø in the middle of January. Located at a latitude of 69 degrees North and 220 miles above of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø was REALLY much DARKER than my home in the south.

When my dear friend Ann Christin picked me up at the airport around 12:30 pm, the sky was a deep blue and it felt as if bedtime was drawing near. My body and mind were confused. Before heading to their house, Ann Christin said we would go to a special place where she hoped we might see something unique to this time of the year. Staring out the car window and full of curiosity about where we were headed, I kept going on and on about my fascination with the darkness as I observed the twilight and snowy mountains. About 45 minutes later, the car slowed as we made our way down a small narrow road, which led to an empty wood cabin on the edge of a fjord.

January was whale season, so we hopped out and hiked to the shore, seeking to spot any whales spouting near the surface. After a few minutes, we noticed something moving out on the water, something flapping, along with birds hovering above and soon saw a blowhole open up and spray, and a tail or two splashing. We stood as long as we could on that icy and snowy spot where the water met the land, as the cold wind cut through our jackets and we sipped our hot chocolate, talking and keeping an eye out for a glimpse of those massive creatures.  

Taking my frozen fingers out of my mittens, I reached in my pocket for my phone to catch a shot of the sunset glow in the middle of the day. The picture I took showed as much sun as I would see that day or anyone had seen for months. That big yellow ball was aching to make an appearance and its only presence was an outline behind a mountain.

I was visiting nearly a month after the winter solstice and noticed a kind of “buzz”, as people anticipated the sun’s return. It felt as if the collective “we” were going forward into the future and the earth’s axis was going to grant everyone a new season with light. And yet, the darkness still held on and while it was slow to arrive, light was the mid-January hope. 

The day after I arrived was called “Soldagen”—also known as the day of the sun or Sun-day. Visible signs of this awaited day were all over the city. The grocery stores were marking the end of the dark times with solboller (sun buns), a sweet pastry with yellow custard cream inside, for just 10 kroner! (Nothing is cheap in Norway, but this was a deal!) Soldagen was a day of recognition, a day of celebration, a day of long-awaited hope, a day of light in the darkness. 

On Soldagen, I witnessed the sun’s return and it was indeed very short. For just one minute the light brightly smacked itself on the top of the mountain, as if to say with great fanfare, “Hey, I’m here! I’m back! Have a look!” And suddenly, it was gone, and the sky went back to the quiet, and calm of the blue twilight. The next day, we had two minutes and the following, three. By June 21st, there would be NO DARKNESS at all. 

(Photo by Emily Rova-Hegener)
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
Isaiah 7:1-2

The season of Advent kicks off the church year and begins in the dark. On the very first Sunday, we light the prophecy candle and read from the book of Isaiah who leads us into anticipation about the One who is coming; THE light in the darkness. He came for the people of long ago, the people of today and the people of tomorrow, all because of an immense love for God’s creation. I cannot read these scriptures without remembering the utter darkness and pure light of Scandinavia. Both darkness and light embrace the rhythm of our life’s seasons and how we live in the tension of transition from one to another: 

  • a time of anticipation of what the future will bring and the time of now 
  • a time of depression and a time of feeling okay
  • a time of work/study and a time of rest/renewal 
  • a time of questions and a time of answers
  • a time of isolation and a time of connection

The One who has come for all IS the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it. 

No. Matter. What. 

Questions to ponder:

  1. In this season of your life right now, where do you notice light? Where do you notice darkness? 
  2. If we are in a period of darkness, how can we lean in and learn from it? Are we open to what it could teach us? 
  3. In this time of Advent and Christmas, how has the Christ Child brought hope into your midst?
  4. In comparing the first chapter of the four Gospels, John is very different. What makes it different and what strikes you?
  5. Do you think the words from the prophet Isaiah are still prophesying today? How so? 

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