Waiting for Light

The Christmas season as most of us know it has drawn to a close. All the preparations and fanfare of Christmas fade into the calendar of another year. But the church calendar, a reminder of a different rhythm within the world around us, offers the countercultural suggestion that we take the Christmas story with us into the New Year. Six days into our new calendars, after trees have come down and lights are put away and the ambiance of Christmas has dimmed, Epiphany is celebrated. Tellingly, Epiphany tells a story about light.

The feast of Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the magi to the birthplace of Jesus. Matthew describes a vigilant scene of astrologers from the east, watching and waiting for light, then following a lone star through a great expanse of darkness only to come upon a newborn king. Their watchful journey took years. It impelled further darkness as Herod's jealousy reared an evil demand for the murder of infant boys throughout Bethlehem. It was a solitary journey, disregarded by the masses and wrought with difficulty. But the light was real and relieving. “Nations shall come to your light,” sang the prophet of this child, “and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

With those who first watched and waited for the reminder that light shines and darkness will not overcome it, Epiphany is a reminder that ours is still a world straining in shadow with our glimpses of light, waiting. Like those who first journeyed to set their eyes on the child born to die, we move through long nights, often finding ourselves out of place, in the dark, straining to see more. The Christian story is a declaration that Jesus can transform this watching and waiting, our lives and our deaths, bringing light where death stings, where tears discourage, and darkness haunts. The night is surely long, but indeed, what if the light is real?

On this Epiphany, I want to set before us a true story about an ad executive from Columbia and the beautiful country he loves.(1) In his lifetime, Jose Miguel Sokoloff has never lived a day of peace in his country. Columbia has the oldest standing guerrilla in the world, a rebel army of armed civilians who use military tactics and many forms of terrorism to fight a larger, less mobilized military. This particular guerilla has financed their war by kidnapping, extortion, drug trade, illegal mining, and in many ways that have contributed to the instability of Columbia and the terrorizing of its citizens. Columbia had the largest population of internally displaced persons in the world, a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and affected close to 9 million people.

They have been in the middle of peace talks but part of the difficulty has been convincing these soldiers to put down their weapons and return home after hiding in the jungles of Columbia for decades. For many of these soldiers, all they have ever known is fighting and hiding.

Sokoloff came up with an idea to help guerrilla fighters choose to come home and he eventually convinced the Columbian military to let him try. They called it Operation Christmas and its tactics were employed over several years at Christmastime. And it worked.

First, they took Christmas lights—thousands and thousands and thousands of them. And they went into the deep jungle and wrapped them beautifully around gigantic trees in nine strategic pathways. These massive trees lit up at night, and they had a sign that lit up beside them that read: “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible.”

They chose Christmas because they noticed a slight pattern of demobilization around this holiday—and so they saw an opportunity to invite the possibility of transformation in a way that could reach the human beyond the soldier.

The following year they expanded Operation Christmas by taking plastic glow in the dark balls that could be opened. They placed them by the thousands in the rivers, which then floated down and were picked up by soldiers who opened them. They had gone into the villages along the river and asked people what they’d like to say to these soldiers to help them come out of the jungle and lay down their weapons. Touched by the Christmas lights themselves, these people responded graciously with notes of forgiveness and tokens to place inside these balls—candy and pictures and jewelry. This generated, quite incredibly, on average, a demobilization every six hours.

For some of the soldiers who were having a harder time walking away, they started to realize the power of the fears that were keeping them in this life in the jungle were less about survival and more about shame. Would they be welcomed home? Would they be rejected? So they found the mothers of many of these soldiers and they asked them to give pictures of their sons and daughters as children. They placed signs up in the thousands with a message from their moms, which read something like: “Before you were a guerrilla, you were my child. Come home, I'm still waiting for you.”

At the time I first heard this story, Operation Christmas had been going on for over eight years and over 17,000 guerrillas had laid down their weapons and come home as a result. The story of Christmas, the promise of light and the possibility of transformation invited these soldiers to reimagine their lives and step out of the jungle.

But what I find so powerful about this story of the Colombian soldiers is that Operation Christmas wouldn't have worked without Christmas, without the Incarnation that gives the story of Christmas its light: a God who not only spoke, but revealed the Word as flesh that stands beside us, cries with us, and leads us home.

Epiphany, like the Incarnation itself, reminds us that Jesus is God's gift of light to a dark world without a great deal of hope. Jesus is God's embodied creative campaign to bring us home, to help us imagine life again, to come out of the jungles of sin and lay down our destructive ways, to live with the reminder that we are not alone in the darkness. Jesus is God’s embodied message to every one of us: You are my child. You are my daughter. You are my son. Come home, I’m still waiting for you.

The night is surely long, indeed, but the light is real.

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity and director of Still Point Arts at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) Lisa Shipley, “Christmas after Christmas: How a Colombian ad exec helped demobilize guerrillas by advertising peace,” The Bogota Post, December 3, 2017.

"A Slice of Infinity" is aimed at reaching into the culture with words of challenge, truth, and hope. By stirring the imagination and engaging the mind, we want to share the beauty and truthfulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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