For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere this is the darkest part of the year and many of us feel the lack of light badly. We often leave home for work before sunrise and arrive back after sunset. Indeed many people, whose jobs involve staring at computer screens or being huddled in meetings, can feel that they never see the sun. And for some the seasonal gloom is truly serious: they have Seasonal Affective Disorder that affects their lives with an even deeper winter.
We all require light in many and different ways and let me suggest three particular areas where light is particularly important.
First, light is essential for being. Biologically, almost all living things depend ultimately on plants which grow by drawing energy from the sun. Shroud the earth in darkness through some terrible disaster and within months there would be little living but bacteria and fungi. Psychologically, light is important for us all. Even if we haven’t been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder many of us find ourselves ‘down’ in December. Here it’s significant that if you listen to anyone feeling low talking about their state of mind they almost inevitably use the language of light by mentioning the ‘gloom’, the ‘darkness’ or the ‘shadow’ that has fallen over them. And at the spiritual level, we all need something that brings hope to the soul and keeps the darkness away. Indeed a cliché, now so overused, is that of ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. Light gives us life.
Second, light is essential for seeing. Without light in the physical world we are in trouble. We’ve probably all had the experience of wandering around the house in pitch darkness, perhaps as a result of a power cut, accumulating bruises and scrapes as we trip or collide with furniture. Symbolically, the language of light is used whenever people talk about resolving difficult issues: we read how ‘light has been shed’ on some mystery, how research has ‘illuminated’ our knowledge or even how someone had a ‘bright’ idea. Indeed, when we struggle with some unknown situation we may admit that we are ‘in the dark’. Equally, the presence of light allows us to see more than hazards or problems: it allows us to see both beauty and evil. So imagine yourself in the frustrating position of standing in a room full of pictures and objects of art but unable to see them because of darkness. Then the switch is thrown on and the room is flooded with light and the beauty is now visible. Conversely, light can also allow us to see things that are wrong or dangerous, and while for that reason some people prefer darkness, light allows us to avoid danger. Light lets us see.
Third, light is a symbol of freeing. All too often darkness brings with it something enslaving or oppressing. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of lying awake at night, struggling hopelessly with some problem or worry and then, as dawn breaks, finding that we can now see it in proportion and can break free of it. Darkness symbolises the very worst aspects of life: imprisonment, fear and despair. Light is a liberator that drives darkness away. Light sets us free.
In every way – biological, psychological and spiritual – we need light and without it we struggle to live. Faced with a darkened world, I’m glad Christianity talks about light. Light frames the Bible: at its start we read how God created light (Genesis 1:3) and at its end we are promised a city where ‘there will be no more night’ (Revelation 22:5). Traditionally, a lot of the symbolism of Advent – the season that looks back at Christ’s first coming and forward to his second – is focused on light. After all, the Bible associates the coming of Christ with light. Indeed in John’s Gospel it is said of the coming of Jesus, ‘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’ (John 1:4–5). Another gospel author, Matthew, writing about Jesus, says, ‘The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned’ (Matthew 4:16). And Jesus said of himself, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness’ (John 8:12).
May the light of Christ dawn on you this Advent season. I will be praying this prayer daily throughout Advent and the Christmas season. Why not join me in praying it.
May God grant us the light of Christmas, which is faith.
The warmth of Christmas, which is love.
The radiance of Christmas, which is purity.
The righteousness of Christmas, which is justice.
The belief in Christmas, which is truth.
The all of Christmas, which is Christ.
As we celebrate the birth of Christ may God grant us all these things – not just at Christmas, but also throughout the New Year. Amen.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version.
Revd Canon J.John