My wife was in Wal-Mart recently when suddenly the power went out. No outside daylight could penetrate the windowless big box store. But instantly it was filled with light. As she mused about the efficiency of the store's back-up generators she realized that was not the solution. The place was filled with i-Phones with flashlight apps, and if it weren't for the fact that the credit card machines were down, business could have carried on as normal.
We carry our own light sources with us, have our own coping mechanisms to avoid ever being in the dark. It's never dark for city-dwellers as the sky is constantly lit up; and even those in the wilderness where the stars can still be seen have their ways to banish the dark with batteries or solar power or fire. But in biblical times, the darkness was really dark, eerily dark, fearfully dark. And it was people who walked in darkness who saw a great light, those who lived, as the ESV puts it, "in a land of deep darkness" (Isaiah 9:2). The darkness in which you have no i-Phone that will enable you to help yourself. The darkness that is not filled with people with their own ultimately inadequate light sources.
Into that kind of darkness, the light shone; and when it did, even that kind of darkness could not overcome it (as we read in John 1:9). It was a literal and a figurative reality that the good news broke at night among shepherds who had no flashlights in their pockets and and no streetlights beckoning them toward Bethlehem. But perhaps our comparative lack of excitement at the good news has something to do with the fact that we don't appreciate the light because the blackness of the darkness in which we really live has been hidden from us. We can't relate to their awe-filled fear at the breaking in of the light.
But the metaphors of light and darkness that filled the scriptures made it inevitable that it would all happen "upon a midnight clear". Life, according to the Old Testament creation pattern, moves from evening to morning and back to evening. Darkness precedes light, as is clear in Genesis 1:2; and this becomes man's experience as he learns that his daily routines begin in the darkness of the evening. It was only in the church that it became clear that in the new creation, our routines and life-cycles start in the dawning of the new day light. The resurrection truly turned the world upside-down, changed forever the times and seasons of our life on earth until the day comes when all will be light forever. Easter morning changed everything.
But Christmas Eve prefigured that. The light broke into the darkness where it had never been seen, and the darkness could do nothing to stop it. The darkness had one final fling in the attempt to push back the light - staking a claim to the noon hour when Christ suffered on the cross. But the Christmas story had already demonstrated the futility of that.The darkness cannot overcome the light, and sure enough, the "Sun of righteousness" rises with healing in his wings (Malachi 4:2).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed it this way (in Life Together, p.40):
The Old Testament day begins at evening and ends with the going down of the sun. It is the time of expectation.The day of the New Testament church begins with the break of day and ends with the dawning light of the next morning. It is the time of fulfillment.
So, "Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you" (Is 60:1). And as Isaiah goes on to say, this light is even strong enough to banish the "thick darkness" that covers the peoples (v.2). The nations will flock to it like moths to a candle (v.3) - just as the wise men from the East were coming hot on the tails of the local lads from the fields just outside Bethlehem. There's no going back now. The light has come.