Throughout the themes of my life, a recurring one is the concept of light. One of my favourite Bible passages is Matthew 5:14-16: "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden... In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven." A lit-up city is a welcoming sight to a weary traveller, even today. It signals invitation, warmth, rest, food, and companionship. But all too often I encounter Christians who take this passage to mean something more like, "Let your light shine before others like a cop with a flashlight checking their sobriety."
Over the years, my dad and I have developed a Christmas custom - we exchange light-themed gifts at Christmas. One year it was a ball cap with lights built into the brim. Another year it was a micro multi-tool with a fold-out flashlight; this little trinket has calmed many a restless child. There was the USB-powered laptop lamp and the flashlight with a fold-out tripod built into the handle.
And to top it all off, I married a girl whose name signifies the very coming of the morning light itself (Dawn).
When the ancient Israelites were seeking their release from captivity in Egypt, God sent a plague of darkness on the land. Their pagan captors were shrouded in deepest night for three days, but the Israelites had light where they lived. They travelled through the desert after escaping Egypt, God himself led the way in the form of a pillar of fire by night to light their way.
At the Easter Vigil in the Catholic Church, we start in darkness symbolic of the tomb, and hear a reading of the creation account in Genesis. "Let there be light!" the voice of God thunders. The priest processes into the church with the new pascal candle for the year, freshly lit, and from that monstrous candle he lights a handful of small tapered candles held by nearby parishioners, who pass it on and on until the whole church is aglow in a warm, soothing light. We sing, "The light of Christ has come into the world." Then we erupt into the majestic Gloria and celebrate the Resurrection.
The Nicene Crede, in defining the nature of Jesus, calls him, "God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God." John's Gospel tells us that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
And shortly after Christmas we recall the oriental magi who followed the light of a star in their quest to find the prophesied Messiah. Yes, indeed, light is all throughout Scripture and the history of our faith.
As I take my bus ride home through downtown Winnipeg each workday, I am amazed at the volume and variety of Christmas lights erected. It seems they are adding more and more each day. There is the obligatory Santa, sleigh, & reindeer, but there are also angels galore, poised in symphonic symmetry lining both sides of Portage Avenue, trumpets raised to proclaim their tidings of great joy, which will be for all people.
Something about light resonates in the human spirit, even in this age of rampant secularism. As a species, deep down we bear an intrinsic knowledge that we have been lifted out of a darkness more pressing than any clouded night sky; a spiritual shroud has been lifted. On the anniversary of this singularly great event, we manifest this deep knowledge with the simple gesture of Christmas lights - for this is the celebration of the dawning of a new era; a fulfilled convenant; a holy promise kept.
The Messiah - Jesus, the Lord - has come, and he beckons us to respond. This Christmas, I invite you to revel in the Light of Christ; to drink it in and to be awash in it. Pray for holiness, pray for peace, pray that the light will spread.
Then reach out with your candle to those next to you still cowering in fear of the banished darkness. You have some very good news to share with them.