John’s gospel is tuned into the turning we make, from night to day, darkness to light, death to life. “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…” John can make us crazy with his simplistic polarities and opposites, if we take him too literally. But knowing John’s orientation to signs and symbols, can open us up to a deeper truth. We see it in the corresponding contrast of “the world” and, the gift of “life everlasting.” For John, the world is often a fallen place, the realm of chaos, full of imperfection and people who do evil, a Domination System [Walter Wink, “Engaging the Powers”]. And he contrasts this with the “life everlasting” that the loving God sends, or in this case, the coming of the light into the world, to change and transform it.
Jesus, of course, is that light. Remember John’s prolog, his gospel’s introduction? Jesus was coming into the world, and he is for us the light and the life, and nothing is created without him? Instead of Jesus born humbly in a barn, and wise men coming to visit, guided by a brilliant star-lit night, we meet Jesus – light itself, coming into the world – which is intentionally evocative of Genesis Ch. 1, and the creation of light. Jesus is the light that overcomes the darkness, the “life everlasting” which has invaded the world, and come to save it.
And so, there is a sense in which we are incapable of doing what is true and good, before the light of the world arrives, whether historically or religiously. But when the light comes and the world is illuminated, evil deeds are suddenly exposed: hypocrisy, prejudice, greed, privilege. None of it can stand, for now what is “true,” shines like a beacon for all to “clearly see.” And this transformation creates a crisis, a moment of decision. To believe or reject the light.
Simple! Yet immeasurably complex. Darkness and light, like the two sides of our world at the spring equinox, are inextricably woven through us, as unsearchable as a DNA strand without a microscope. Or as Luther said, we are a paradox, “both sinners and saints at the same time.”
In a fascinating report from the BBC called, “the myth of the eight-hour sleep,” both scientific studies and historical data reveal that our understanding of night-time, is really based on culturally created values. In a study done in the 1990’s by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr, he invited test subjects into a controlled environment where for one month they lived with 14 hours of darkness each night. When their sleep patterns were allowed to regulate themselves, which took about 3 weeks, they found that people naturally fell into a pattern of a ‘first sleep’ for four hours, and then wakefulness for one or two hours, before falling into ‘a second four-hour sleep.’ Then, about 10 years later, the historian Roger Ekirch published a paper, which came out in book form in 2005 (At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past), showing his research into more than 500 references to this same segmented sleeping pattern: About two hours after night fall, a first sleep began, followed by a waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep. “It’s not just the number of references,” as the author says, “it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge.”
So what did people do during the 2 hour sleep break? Lots of things! Reading in bed, praying, writing, some got up to go to the bathroom, or smoked tobacco. Some even visited neighbors! Dream interpretation was popular too. And, doctors, advised couples that it was, the better time to conceive, and more enjoyable, than trying when first going to bed after a long days work.
But, over a period of about 300 hundred years, we lost this sleep pattern. With the advent of street lights, gas lamps in the home, and the popularity of coffee houses opening in big cities, the night, found light and life! It started small in the late 17th Century with the upper classes, and by the 1920’s in America, the first and second sleep, had become totally unknown. By then, the idea of the 8 hour sleep, had become firmly entrenched.
And just as the value of sleep experienced a cultural change, the notion of night as evil, and day as true or good, transitioned too. Earlier, night was considered only a time for criminals, prostitutes and drunks to be out and about. But with the advent of street lights and gas lamps, values evolved, and churches were some of the first to change. In the wake of the Reformation in Europe, Protestants and Catholics both became accustomed to holding secret services at night, due to the waves of persecutions. And with the advent of the industrial revolution, efficiency and productivity became more highly valued than rest. Adults, and even children, were encouraged to do away with the second sleep, it was unproductive, so that the eight hour sleep could be accepted as the standard.
The truth is, light and dark, can be either good or bad. Today with the economy in recession, many workers work more than one job, or work split-shift jobs, which is not so good for them. But street lights can be very good for keeping us safe when we do have to, or want to, be up. A well oiled economy can be a good thing for increasing our standard of living. But burning more and more fossil fuels can lead to global warming.
We may never resolve the paradox of light and dark, good and evil, balancing night and day like the Equinox. But we know that Christ has brought light and life into our world. The life that is everlasting is now “clearly seen” because of Jesus. The world has turned, and the Spirit has tipped its hand in Jesus, revealing the God who is pure love and pure life. And each day we have another chance to decide once again, and make the choice to turn to the font of our baptism. It’s a journey we make these 40 days of Lent, on our way to the Great Three Days of Jesus’ death and resurrection, a turning toward the life giving light that has come into the world. Even now, let us come and bathe ourselves in this “life everlasting.” For, in the God who raised the Son of Man, there is no death, but only light and life.