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The Darkness Cannot Understand

The Darkness Cannot Understand

by Stella Burkhalter on November 29, 2023

For the month of November, we invited the church to use our gratitude prayer guide. It was formatted like a devotional book I love, Pauses for Lent by Trevor Hudson.  I have never been good at the discipline of keeping up with devotional guides, but his format of meditating on a word a day was helpful to me, so we decided it would be a good thing for the whole church to try. 

The eagle-eye proofreaders on staff questioned the unusual Bible translation for the passage about light, and the explanation may be interesting to those of you who have read this far.  To understand, you have to listen to the beginning of the Gospel of John: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

The opening of the Book of John contains some of the most beautiful prose of the Bible – or maybe it should be classified as poetry. John contrasts light and darkness, setting up a binary choice: will we choose the light, or will we embrace darkness? 

The line, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” reminds us that even a tiny light radiates, and the darkness cannot keep it from shining out. The Greek word for “overcome” is katelaben. It is a compound word that includes the prefix “down” with the root word “grasp” or “get.” You can imagine darkness grasping at the light, trying to drag it down. It is a powerful metaphor for the forces of evil that try to defeat us. 

But katelaben has another meaning. When you try to understand something complex, you try to pull it down into your brain from the intellectual heights above.  For this reason, the Greek word katelaben can also be translated “understand” or “comprehend.” Darkness does not understand light. 

I am fascinated by language and intrigued by Biblical translation.  If we translate John 1:5 as “the darkness cannot overcome” the light, it encourages us that our efforts to bring love into the world are not in vain, even when they are difficult or seem to have no effect. On the other hand, if we translate it as “the darkness cannot understand” the light, it encourages us that our efforts to bring love into the world are at times misunderstood, because the ways of God are so high above human understanding; loving enemies is counterintuitive.  Either way, we are encouraged, but the encouragement is different.  

I struggled with the choice of translation, but in the end, I was drawn to the idea that evil has no idea what we are up to. I kind of enjoy outsmarting evil. It is no match for us when we are with God, which points to the reminder that darkness cannot overcome us. The double meaning is helpful.  

I hope you will hold on to that with me as we head toward Advent with a focus on hope. See you in church.  

Pastor Stella

Tags: darkness, light, understand

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