The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9: 2)
Many ancient religions have a festival to celebrate this light. Jews have Hanukkah and Hindus have Diwali. The Japanese festival is Tōrō Nagashi (Festival of Floating Lanterns). Christians have Christmas. This great light that shines in the darkness is a gift of incomparable importance. It is well that we should use the weeks of Advent to acknowledge it, be grateful and resolve to change our lives by its illumination.
It’s not an accident that we notice this special light best when we are living in darkness. Frankly, it’s hard to see otherwise. We may be told and believe that it is there when daylight surrounds us, but its power is less evident. In the darkness our attention is drawn to the star that hovers over our epiphanies. If we take the time to gaze upon it, gently and slowly it begins to penetrate the dark nights of our daily life in order to meet the small light that sits, almost imperceptibly, deep inside our soul.
This light has many meanings. It is God, God’s wisdom. It is the virtues by which we ought to live, especially faith, hope and love. It is truth and life itself. It is the image and likeness of God in Judeo-Christian tradition. It is the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism. Many meanings, but one Light. Ultimately, each meaning converges with others in this one, single unifying principle that is God who so loved the world that he dwells within as well as outside of us.
We often forget that this light is within us, especially in our darkest hours. It is then that we need the star that shines high above the turmoil to remind us. For the celebration of Diwali this year, an Indian mystic posted a message that helps to understand this fact. The festival, he said, is not only a remembrance but an opportunity to bring clarity into our lives by the light that acts like a beacon in the fog of prejudice, animosity and fear.
The same can be said about the days of our Lord’s Nativity and Epiphany that we too often limit to remembrances of events long ago and far way. Yet this great gift is renewed each year in equally wonderful ways.
It is fear that causes us to turn on earthly lights that blind us to the true light. Fear causes us to escape from the painful aspects of reality, aspects that are often the source of our distress. Escape is rarely a fruitful strategy. Rather, we are encouraged to face our fears, lean in the direction of the pain in order to unmask our personal demons or defuse what we have come to regard as threatening. Happiness-seeking per se is a delusional pursuit.
The current issue of a popular magazine about spirituality and health proffers a single formula for dealing with seasonal affective disorder or the dread of nightfall from which some people suffer: embrace the darkness. I laughed when I first read it. Typical of trendy self-help literature, I thought. But the more I considered it, the more I came to realize that any other suggestion would only serve as a distraction from the one central truth: finding the light in the darkness.
Ultimately, this is an exercise in integrating foreign elements into our system for giving meaning to human existence in general and our own sense of well-being in particular. Sometimes these foreign elements are gifts, things that we need to grow in freedom and grace. Yet, often we even think of them as darkness itself.
The best example is the gift of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas. Born in the dark night, rejected by his father’s community and deprived of all comfort, Light entered the chaos. What few discovered at the time is that by embracing the darkness, they embraced the true light. The world would not know this light. In fact, it would feel threatened by it, mostly because to hold it, one must enter the darkness.
This light was given to us so that we might find hope and meaning in chaos, mercy in fear, compassion for ourselves and others. The light that penetrates fear reveals the giftedness that lies at the core of ourselves, hidden from sight by layers of scar tissue and the defensive lies that we tell ourselves.
May God’s love expressed as mercy be the grace that we embrace on Christmas morning. To find this unassuming gift, we must look into the shadows, far behind the glittering packages and sparkling ornaments that typically hold our attention. Advent is the season in which we learn to embrace the darkness in faith. We need only trust that this is the Light that brings true joy.