Is the darkness alive? And how angry is it?

Let me backtrack a little. At this time of year an ancient rite of passage for head teachers, almost as old as Christmas itself, is to read the Ninth Lesson in carol services: where St John unfolds the mystery of the incarnation. One of the lines carries particular beauty and this year I heard it in two different translations. The King James Version of the Bible puts it this way: and the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. However, the English Standard Version feels very different: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Now: both verbs are active – to comprehend, to overcome – either way the darkness is full of intent. Comprehend implies more thought: implies that the darkness is more alive. Overcome perhaps suggests more aggression – it doesn’t think much, but it is pretty cross about things.

Across the range of English translations, the gap widens. Translations tend either to cluster around not being able to understand light, or hating it and seeking to destroy it. In the former camp: understand, comprehend, apprehend. In the latter: overcome, master, overpower.

This trail leads back to the original extant version in Greek, where we find κατέλαβεν (katelaben). And inevitably, given the way the English translations have gone, the word means both: to grasp, get a handle, get control of. Both to understand and to overcome. What is interesting to note here is the link between understanding and control, even violent control. Many of the ways we think about ‘understanding’ carry a degree of violence. When we grasp or apprehend a fact, we are literally seizing it, taking hold of it, arresting it. The darkness wants to know the light, to fathom it, and to crush it – all at the same time – it is the same process.

One of the hardest things we must teach our young people, who do need the facts and solid learning on which their exams and qualifications rely, is that some forms of understanding cannot be apprehended – they resist arrest by the police officer of reason. They cannot be photographed like a suspect and reliably wheeled out under timed conditions. Some forms of understanding are evanescent and fragile; barely fit into words at all; float almost beyond the capacity of our minds.

Sometimes this is true of things we might characterise as light in darkness: such things as love and joy. They cannot be willed and often cannot be understood; they cannot be seized and made to behave or perform at will; but they are very real, and they nourish us more than many of the facts we do command.

Every time we look at a Diwali diya, or a Hanukkah menorah, or a Christmas tree, we are reminded of the fragility of light, and yet its permanence: the continual difficult triumph of hope, optimism, faith, love and beauty over the dark. And every time we see the resolve and optimism of young people, it is like setting a light against the obscurity of the future: they illuminate the path ahead. True learning, the increase of understanding, brightens and sustains that light stretching ahead of us down the years. It is a wonder to witness.

We wish you all a wonderful break and above all – the increase of light in all things.

Will le Fleming, Head