Bultmann on the light that shines in the world
Rudolf Bultmann, the theologian of Advent, gave a sermon in Marburg on December 16, 1931, regarding what it means to expect the arrival of the one who has already come. The text for the sermon is John 3.19–21. Here is an excerpt I translated today. May it be an edifying reflection during this time of joyful expectation of Christ’s coming.
We prepare ourselves for the coming one in the time of advent, the time of coming, of arrival. . . . But is this not a game of fancy? Are we not placing ourselves artificially in a mood of expectation, so that we experience the splendor of Christmas again as a surprise? . . . How can we expect the coming of one who is already here? . . . If we are serious about the expectation of the coming one, then we expect the one who comes to us and remains with us. Only then is Advent a genuine Advent. But how is it then possible that again and again we celebrate Advent annually? He came, and he is gone again? And will he repeatedly come and go? Is this the sad secret, out of which arises the constantly repeated celebration of Advent, that each of us must say: Yeah, well, he came, but he left. . . .
The coming of the Lord, which the Christian community anticipates in Advent and celebrates at Christmas, is not at all primarily his coming to the individual, his entering into the soul, but rather his coming to the world. 'The eternal light comes in, giving the world a new appearance' (Luther). . . . God's word is . . . that the Lord has come, that the eternal light has given the world a new appearance. This coming, which ought to comfort one, is not something which the soul ever and again experiences; such a comfort quickly vanishes. Rather it is the coming of the Lord in the world; it is the word that the Lord has come and is with us. If we are serious in the expectation of the coming one, then we await one who has already come, who is already here.
How is he here? In his word! In the word that promises peace and joy, which grants us grace and peace 'from the one who is and was and is to come.' And how is this word the light that gives the world a new appearance? . . . 'The light shines in the darkness' (Jn 1.5). 'The eternal light comes in, giving the world a new appearance.' The message of Christmas resounds as a message of joy. But it is a genuine message of joy only when we do not forget the other word next to it: 'And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world.'
Why is it judgment? Does the light not dispel the darkness? . . . Are we not people who walk in darkness? Do we not yearn for the light? Yes, that is the decisive question, whether we ourselves truly yearn for the light! Why is it judgment that the light has come into the world? Because people loved the darkness more than the light. . . . Yes, we all yearn for light for our desires and plans! . . . How do we love the darkness? Whether we truly love the light and not the darkness shows itself by whether we come to the eternal light, to the true light. For this light does not illuminate the way of our desires and plans; it does not illuminate the world the way we would like to see it, or the way we try to illuminate our own desires and ideals with dim lights, but rather it gives the world a new appearance.
Rudolf Bultmann, Das verkündigte Wort: Predigten, Andachten, Ansprachen 1906–1941, ed. Erich Grässer and Martin Evang (Tübingen: Mohr, 1984), 239–42.