CHRIST THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD
by Sr Jadwiga o.p.
'The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.'
'O dark, dark, dark
Amidst the blaze of noon
Irrevocably dark, total eclipse
Without the hope of day!'
This is what John Milton – who himself became blind - has Samson (of Samson and Delilah) say in his poem about this blind but heroic figure in the Bible. And perhaps one of the difficulties of talking about the overwhelming phenomenon of light, all that it brings, and all that it does, (of appreciating Christ as the light of the world, whose symbol is the white candle on our Advent wreathes)
: our difficulty is that we, here, in the western world, rarely if ever, now experience real darkness. As soon as dusk comes, the lights in the streets go on; at home, light goes on at the flick of a switch; even in much of the countryside one is often aware of the glow of light from towns or streets, or even villages, which is reflected in the sky. Pitch black in much of Britain is hardly ever experienced, unless there has been a flood, as this year in the NorthWest, or a hurricane as in1987 in Canterbury and elsewhere, where power fails over a large area. I remember the qualitative difference: lying in bed, in the usual darkness, with the wind howling outside, and the neighbour’s roof sliding off into the garden, and the sudden, complete and quite other sort of darkness as the power failed and all the lights everywhere went off. It is therefore rare for us to experience a longing for light in the way that those for whom light in the darkness was a rare and difficult commodity must have experienced it: as salvation from all those fears that can possess us in total darkness. Again, I have only one memory of such a moment.
Some of you may perhaps remember the power cuts in the early seventies: they were regional, so that there would be lights in one part of a city but not in others. I was in Canterbury and I had been up at the University, which is on top of a hill, and was walking down to the city centre when the lights all around me went off, leaving me – there seemed to be no one else about – in sudden and strange darkness. It was unnerving. But there, at the bottom of the hill, shining through the North Gate of the city walls was the glow of light from the town: welcome and inviting and a source of safety. For me this was a one-off moment; for those who had built those walls, and who came there on pilgrimage, (like Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims) such an experience, either there, or elsewhere, must have been a common one, though no less telling for that: here, in the darkness was danger; there where the light was was shelter, security, protection.
If, then, we are so little aware of darkness in our everyday world, can we really appreciate what it is to speak of Christ, as St.John does, as the light which shines in the darkness, but is not overcome by it? And might it not also be true that, losing our apprehension of the dark, we may also lose something of our apprehension of the metaphorical darkness of sin and sinfulness? I think perhaps that just as in our day-to-day and night-to-night lives we are more often than not aware only of shades of greyness, so in our moral sensibilities we perceive our own wrongdoing, and the ambience of the world we live in, as rather less dark, less to be avoided and, most of all, counteracted, than we should; and hence we are less aware of the depth of our need for the light of truth and of the salvation which Christ offers us.
We long less for the Light of Christ. There are, after all, so many artificial lights all around us: road signs, shop signs, lights which direct us to this or that entertainment, which entice us to this and that commodity, which, in the end blind us – not with darkness, but with the glitter of choices; blind us, not literally, but nevertheless no less seriously, to the light which is Christ.
If real light gives us shelter, security, protection ...it also gives us something else: warmth. Where there is no light there is also no warmth, though again, in our modern western world it is easy to lose sight of this for, on the whole, we do not associate light bulbs or strip lighting with warmth, and radiators do not shine: sources of heat in our world are as invisible as possible. This separation also has its metaphorical, symbolical, dangers. We sometimes talk about the light of truth, and the warmth of love. But truth without love can be destructive: St.Paul bids us always to speak the truth in love. Perhaps, just as in our world we separate heat and light (though without ill consequences) so we can be prone to forget the warmth that true light gives- true Christ like light - and, in our attempts to do as we are bidden and be ‘lights to the world’ we can divorce light from warmth and see and speak things only in the ‘cold’ light of day.
There is, too, another difference between natural and artificial light. Artificial light is much harsher than the light of fire and flame and differs even from sunlight. I expect most of you have at some time or other tried to buy some piece of clothing or material to match something else. You can’t do it in the middle of the shop where there is strip lighting. You have to take it to the window to see its true colours by the light of day. And even more: when the orange lights in the main roads come on at dusk, everything turns a nasty shade of puce and people become travesties of themselves. By contrast, candlelight and firelight are kinder: they soften hard outlines, give a glow to skin and eyes, and moderate the shadows beneath them. And why should that be less real than the way we appear, the way we see, in harsh lights of offices and shops? More significantly even, firelight and candlelight show us a world, and the people in it, as strange, mysterious even; and that is indeed what the world and we in it are: mysterious; mysterious even to ourselves; not to be glibly explained or easily pigeon-holed and dismissed as this or that. We are mysterious with a mysteriousness to be respected. We should, perhaps, remind ourselves, therefore, that the kinds of lights – to be set on a hilltop, and not hidden under a bushel - that Jesus knew and spoke of, and that we are meant to be, are the light of fire and of candle, and not the glaring, blaring lights of the world around us today.
If, then, we think of light in terms of fire and candle light, there is something else that we should note. Unlike the electric lights which surround us and can be turned on at the flick of a switch, to light a fire in darkness without modern aids, is not easy. Outside, one has to find the right stuff to burn, and even if one doesn’t have to resort to flints for the first spark, the scout and guide test of using only two matches can easily fail. And, unlike electric light, fires and candle flames have to be tended. So, too, the light that we are meant to be can’t just be turned on at will: we need to know Christ – in prayer, in reading, in the Sacraments he left us – if we are to catch his flame; and we need to go on tending it all our lives. This should give us pause. But it can also be an encouragement, for we can remind ourselves that, since it is not easy to light fires, our apparent failures to do so may be only apparent, for perhaps all that we can do, is to find the right stuff which will eventually catch fire when someone else puts a match to it; but laying a fire is as necessary as lighting it. And this should remind us that in the Christian dispensation we never do things individually (except sin). Jesus addressing his disciples; speaks plurally, not individually. And though we all do have our own, individual responsibility, if we are to bring the Light which is Christ to our grey world, we can do so properly only together. And that is because the white light which is Christ (like all light) is made up of countless colours, all the colours of the rainbow, which are many more than we can see or are aware of. On our own we are shades of blue, or green, or pink or infra red or ultra violet; without each one of us something will inevitably be missing, but only together can we truly be the light of Christ
As I began with the words of one poet, so I would like to end with the words of another: T.S.Eliot
O Light Invisible, we praise Thee!
Too bright for mortal vision.
O Greater Light, we praise Thee for the less;
The eastern light our spires touch at morning,
The light that slants upon our western doors at evening,
The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight,
Moon light and star light, owl and moth light,
Glow-worm glowlight on a grassblade
O Light Invisible, we worship Thee!
Come, Lord Jesus and enlighten our darkness!