Jerusalem at dawn (Pixelchrome)
The epistle we shall hear on Sunday morning invites us to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!’. Even if those words immediately press the ‘Purcell’ switch in your head, as they do for me, you’d be forgiven for finding it hard to follow this injunction right now. After days in which dozens of sisters and brothers were drowned in their desperate bid for sanctuary. After thousands have gone without power in the north-east. After six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was murdered by his stepmother. After teenagers were stabbed and killed in Manchester and London. And then the Omicron variant and everything that entails. This is just scratching the surface of what’s going on in this country. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still unjustly incarcerated. Afghanistan is a nightmare. The land of Jesus’ birth is in turmoil. And what of Eritrea, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, DRC, Libya, Ukraine, Hong Kong? What of the Uighurs – remember them?
Rejoice? You must be kidding.
Christians are called to be harbingers, not of doom, but of hope. And in Advent, that means looking for the light in the darkness. But how?
The light of Christ, the light of the world, is not like the bright lights shining outside this church along King’s Parade. It’s not like the burning street lamps, traffic lights, and shop frontages which surround us. No – the light of Christ does something very special. It is St John himself who tells us, tucked away in verse 5 of chapter 1, which we will hear again and again at Christmas: the light shineth in the darkness. The light of Christ shines.
The word John uses is ‘φαίνει’ (phainei). This is the present tense. Do you see? This light doesn’t go out. It never stops shining. Even when it seemed that the only glow in the dark nights of Christ’s Passion were the flaming torches of the soldiers and the faintly glowing charcoal fire. Still shining. Even as they nailed him to the cross. Still shining. Even as he met Mary of Magdala in the deep dawn of the Easter garden. Still shining.
Fra Angelico, 'Noli mi tangere' (1440–42) in the convent of San Marco, Florence
And still shining now. Shining his light of revelation onto a darkened world so people of goodness can give shelter to the desperate. Shining his light of truth into a troubled world so that people of faith can recognize the disordered beliefs of religious hatred for the poison that they are. Shining his light of love into your heart, and my heart, so that we can see ourselves as we truly are, and, thus knowing, change.
Light can be dangerous. Ask anyone who has stared into an eclipse without protecting their eyes. But Christ the light of the world does not blind people with his glory. His is the ‘one equall light’ which Donne extolled, a shining – the shining – which enables us to rejoice, always.