I am indebted to my friend JP who has done most of the ‘heavy lifting’ on this reflection. As I write this, the atmosphere feels heavy with all that is going on in the world around us…and how we ourselves are responding to it. Advent is almost upon us and the great
Advent themes of darkness and light seem especially relevant this year. 2020 has felt particularly dark. Most of us have had moments of anxiety and uncertainty about the future. For some there has been fear and sorrow. Others have experienced illness and loss. All of us have endured unprecedented restrictions, limiting our physical contact with those we love and forcing us to keep our distance from each other.
But despite all this, there have also been moments of light in the darkness. Many of us have appreciated a different pace of life and become more aware of what is important to us. There has been great humour, kindness and forbearance. We have risen to the challenges that have confronted us, adopting behaviours which seem alien to us, such as wearing masks, not for our own benefit, but to keep other people safe.
The great Christmas Gospel tells us that ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1.5). Jesus comes as the light of the world (John 8.12). In him, the ancient prophecy has been fulfilled: ‘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; Matthew 4.16).
We do not know the actual date on which Jesus was born but whatever the reason, it is very appropriate that we celebrate Christmas in the middle of winter, when the weather is coldest and the nights are longest.
By a cosmic coincidence, on the longest night of this year, December 21, there will be a rare ‘great conjunction’ between Jupiter and Saturn. Viewed from Earth, the two planets will appear very close together: just a tenth of a degree apart, or a fifth of the diameter of the moon. It will be their closest conjunction since 1623. The two heavenly lights will almost converge, becoming a single light shining with exceptional brightness.
When you look up at the night sky on December 21, the light from Jupiter will have taken about 50 minutes to reach you, and the light from Saturn about 85 minutes. The starlight of Sirius has travelled for over eight years. The three stars of Orion’s belt are over 1200 light years away. The Andromeda galaxy, the furthest object visible with the naked eye, is 2.5 million light years distant.
Celestial distances are mind-boggling. Space is very dark. But the light of the stars still reaches us, bringing hope and joy to those who look up and see it. The light shines in the darkness. We may be socially distanced, but God, ‘through whom all things came into being’ (John 1.3) is with us.
The American theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, wrote this poem about lights in the darkness:
I will light Candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
May this help us to gain and retain a better perspective and work for a better world.
With love, Philip