November 29, 2010
In Jesus was life, and the life was the light of men. John 1:4
If you see a large glow in the sky over Washington County, Maryland this Saturday, don’t be alarmed. It’s just the luminaria.
Every year on December’s first Saturday, Antietam National Battlefield sets out sand-and-candle-filled bags to honor all the casualties of the bloodiest one-day battle in American military history.
Care to guess how many that is?
23,110. That’s one luminaria for each Union and Confederate soldier killed, maimed or lost on September 17, 1862.
A staggering number, isn’t it?
The bags are placed along a five-mile route through the battlefield. Apparently it’s quite a popular drive-through event—the park’s website warns that the line of cars to get in can be up to two hours long (no pedestrians allowed).
If you can’t get there, the site has a seven-and-a-half minute video explaining how the preparation is done, which includes panoramic shots of what the illumination looks like. Very moving.
Light is a central theme in Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas. We have an Advent wreath in our house—4 purple tapers surrounding a while pillar candle—and we do readings every night relating to this season when we celebrate Jesus’ birth. Each candle has a theme that centers on the Christmas story—prophecy, shepherds, angels and wise men. The one in the middle is for Jesus, whom the apostle John describes as “life,” “the light of men” and “the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man” (John 1:4, 9). Jesus called Himself “the light of the world,” providing “the light of life” to all who follow Him (John 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46).
The Savior came into the world at a dark time for the nation of Israel. Nearly 2,000 years passed since any inspired prophet had arisen in the land, 400 between the completion of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament writings. I’m sure God’s people wondered when the Messianic prophesies were going to be fulfilled, and many were undoubtedly disappointed to realize they would never see them come to pass in their lifetime.
And yet…God was still at work. I won’t get into the events that occurred during that time that paved the way for Christ’s coming, but you can read about them in this article by Bible teacher Ray Stedman.
Needless to say, the Israelites were ready for some word, some revelation from God. And when that light came, that “good news of a great joy” (Luke 2:10), it was in the form of a baby, God in human form, who “became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
While I was on the Antietam website, I read a little more about the battle. The savage twelve-hour combat engaged nearly 100,000 men from both armies, concluding when Confederate General Robert E. Lee withdrew back across the Potomac River to Virginia, thus ending what had been his first invasion of the North.
I imagine the Union Army must have seen the outcome as a good news/bad news sort of victory. So horrible a fight, so many lost (if they’d known that the war was going to continue on for another two-and-a-half years, they would have been further disheartened).
And yet…a major victory had been won.
And that wasn’t all. Lee’s retreat gave President Lincoln the opening he’d been waiting for, to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery.
Many of the soldiers memorialized at Antietam never lived to know how much good their sacrifice accomplished for their country. But we do, and that is why we honor them.
Generations of Israelites also left this world not knowing that, as the beloved Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” puts it, “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met.
But we do. And that is why we memorialize Him, lighting our candles in a dark world to honor Him who brought good news amid the bad by making the greatest sacrifice of all, dying for the entire world “at the right time” and reconciling us to God (Romans 5:6-11).
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, Risen with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King.”