The author of those words, Hanns Lilje, was a leader in the confessing church that boldly opposed Hitler. Imprisoned for his actions, he spent time in both the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. On that memorable Christmas Eve of 1944, in a moment of “sentimental softness” the SS commandant removed the chains of a violinist awaiting execution and allowed him to play in the large vaulted hall of the prison.

Lilje paced back and forth in his cell, listening to the beautiful music so different from the usual prison sounds. He recalled the Christmas message he had given the previous year, before his arrest. Allied bombing raids were leveling Berlin, and many families, especially those with children, had left the city.

Speaking in his unheated church, he had addressed a congregation of mostly senior citizens who had nowhere else to go. He chose a passage from Isaiah 9: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (v. 2).

While preparing his sermon, Lilje had reminisced about childhood Christmases, when he would walk the streets with his playmates, excitedly peering into homes at the brightly lit Christmas trees inside. During wartime, however, all windows were darkened under strict blackout rules.

As a pastor, what light could he possibly offer in such dark and difficult times? And now, a year later, what light could he even imagine, waiting in a darkened cell for his own death sentence to be carried out?

As I read Hanns Lilje’s remembrance of a Christmas eight decades ago, my mind went to contemporaries who are walking in darkness. Ukrainians huddled around a kerosene lamp in a basement bomb shelter as Russian missiles fly overhead. Palestinian Christians in Gaza sharing a Christmas “feast” of bread and water. Members of unregistered churches in China who face arrest simply for gathering together. Nigerians wondering if terrorists will choose this night to raid their church and kidnap their children.

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Then I turned to the Gospel accounts of the event that started it all. Elizabeth and Zechariah rejoiced at the news that God had at last answered their prayers for a son—but did they live long enough to learn of his decapitation for a king’s party?

Even Mary, who had confidently sung of the Mighty One bringing down rulers and scattering the proud, had to flee to Egypt in order to escape Herod’s massacre of infants. The old man Simeon had it right when he told Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel…And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34–35).

Advent both remembers and anticipates. From the very beginning, the church has marked this season as a time to commemorate both Jesus’ birth and his promised return. We live out our days between already and not yet.

Author Fleming Rutledge marvels at the prospect: “Here is a man who was born into a poor family, who went to no university, who owns nothing, who has no bank account, no resumé or portfolio, no job or house, no title or rank, a man who is about to be judged guilty and not fit to live by the highest religious and political tribunals of his time, and here he is saying that he is going to come again, personally, at the end of the world, to determine the fate of all human beings who have ever been born.”

Does it matter, this extravagant hope that someday Jesus will return—not as a baby this time, but as a conqueror of evil who will make all sad things come untrue? Rutledge responds:

We realize that people act differently if they are convinced that there will be a definitive future action. A prisoner who knows he will be freed is a very different person from one who knows he will never get out. A group of hostages who know that the SWAT team is on its way is a very different group from the one that has no hope of rescue. If you know that your chemotherapy really might heal you, you can tolerate it a lot better than if it is just a last, desperate measure. Advent is like that. In this season, the church celebrates two things: God has already acted definitively on our behalf, and God will act definitively in the future to bring his purposes to pass once and for all. That is what it means to watch and wait for the second advent of Christ, no matter how long it takes.

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Suddenly, on that Christmas Eve of 1944, Hanns Lilje heard his number loudly called—which usually meant interrogation, torture, or even worse. A guard led him from his third-floor cell directly to the commandant, who motioned for him to follow. “Bring number 212 to this cell too!” he ordered the guard.

Lilje recognized the prisoner inside as a noble count who had participated in Operation Valkyrie, a failed plot to assassinate Hitler (the same plot that led to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s arrest). The count had asked for a pastor to hear his confession and offer Holy Communion; it being Christmas Eve, the commandant had granted his request. The guard brought in number 212, the violinist about to be executed, and then left.

This year Lilje would be addressing an audience of three: a violinist, a count, and an SS commandant. He read the Gospel account from Luke, and gathered his thoughts as the violinist played a Christmas chorale. Once again, he chose Isaiah 9:2: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

“Our chief concern, now,” Lilje said, “is to receive this promise in firm faith and to believe that God, through Jesus Christ, has allowed the eternal light to ‘arise and shine’ upon this world which is plunged in the darkness of death, and that He will also make this Light to shine for us. At this moment, in our cells, we have practically nothing that makes the Christmas festival so familiar and so lovely, but there is one thing left to us: God’s great promise. Let us cling to this promise, and to Him, in the midst of the darkness.”

The count knelt on the hard stone floor to receive the elements of Communion, and the violinist played a final chorale. Lilje shook hands with his fellow prisoner and then the commandant, who to his surprise said, “Thank you! You cannot imagine what you have done for me this evening, in my sad and difficult daily work.”

Lilje adds that soon afterward the commandant was removed from his post for proving too humane. The count was sent to a concentration camp, and the violinist was killed by the Gestapo during the last days of Nazi rule. Lilje himself survived to become a bishop and president of the Lutheran World Federation.

John’s Gospel sets Jesus’ birth in a cosmic perspective, positioning him at the very moment of creation. “Without him nothing was made that has been made,” John declares (John 1:3). Yet the master artist who spanned the universe took on flesh and blood, and “moved into the neighborhood” (as The Message has v. 14). Like a streak of light across the darkling sky, his life brought hope to all humanity, and especially to those who walk in darkness.

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“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” (v.5). I pause to consider that John wrote these words after watching Jesus’ agonizing death, the martyrdom of his disciples, and the Romans’ ravaging of Jerusalem. But John has faith in a radiant future, and elsewhere he explains why: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

We dare not underestimate the relentless power of light. Right now, space telescopes are processing light that has been traveling nonstop, at a speed of 186,282 miles per second, for 13 billion years. Also, it turns out that John is scientifically correct: Light extinguishes darkness.

When I camp on the edge of a mountain in Colorado, darkness rules inside the tent. Yet if I flick on my LED headlamp, the darkness immediately disappears. The reverse does not hold true. If I introduce darkness into a lit room—say, by opening a sealed container—the darkness vanishes, overcome by the light.

When he later wrote about the Christmas Eve service attended by four people in a prison cell, Hanns Lilje remembered the light more than the darkness. “I praised God, and indeed, I praised Him from my whole heart that in this building, under the shadow of death, and in the face of so much trouble and distress, a Christian congregation had assembled to celebrate Christmas.”

“For it is possible,” Lilje reflects, “to have every external sign of festivity and comfort and joyful celebrations, and yet not to have a true Christmas congregation, while in the shadow of death and in much trouble of heart a real congregation can gather at Christmas. It is possible for the candles and the lights to blind our eyes, so that we can no longer see the essential element in Christmas; but the people who ‘walk in darkness’ can perhaps see it better than all who see only the lights of earth.”

Philip Yancey is the author of many books including, most recently, the memoir Where the Light Fell.