As we enter December, days are the shortest, and nights are the longest, and yet, it is the season of light. This is true not only for my own faith: Christianity, but for so many other religions. Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, and other sacred holidays celebrate the victory of light over darkness, igniting flames to represent this holy concept. As we drive around this time of year and exclaim over the lights, it is easy to just treat them as a something akin to entertainment: little colorful thrills lighting up the dark world. And that is perfectly fine, of course. My family enjoys piling into the car with mugs of hot chocolate, cranking up a Christmas station, and seeing the twinkly sights. But, sometimes, in a contemplative moment, I like to think about what all these lights competing against the swirling darkness communicate at a deeper level. As a people, we delight in light. We need it and crave it. We are cheered by it. We respond to it viscerally, even if we never process the "why" on a cerebral level. Why do we love lights so?
Those who know me know the high premium I place upon light in my life and the quality of that light. I chose a south-facing house in order to ensure we would be bathed in a steady stream of natural light for as many hours a day as possible. During the sun-starved months, I sit each morning under a sun lamp while I read, journal, and pray. Without ample exposure to light, I wilt. I begin to feel as though I'm dwelling within a dank cave, and hope and inspiration begin to flicker out. Maybe some readers know what I mean. We are not meant to abide in darkness.
Within my own faith tradition, the season of advent now begins. There are two metaphors for Christ that speak to me perhaps more than any others and have for as long as I can remember: that he is the Word. And that he is the Light. The Light of the World. The concept that he is the "Word made flesh" naturally arrests my imagination because, well, words. I love them. That Christ is The Word with skin is a thought that transfixes me: a holy amalgamation of sacred text (the most sacred) and sensual, physical reality. Not only The Word, but The Living Word. I am especially compelled by the first five verses of the book of John because they say this:
1. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2. He was in the beginning with God.
3. All things were made through Him, and without Him, nothing was made that was made.
4. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
The conflation of Christ as God -- and of Christ as both Word and Light is just so beautiful, so exquisitely complex. It feels as though we could unpack it for a lifetime and still never quite take its measure. It is poetry.
And so I bring you one of my favorite paintings, as we enter through advent's door. Entitled "The Light of the World," by William Holman Hunt and painted in 1853, it hangs in the side chapel of Keble College, Oxford. A friend and I had the pleasure of seeing it in person while in our early twenties, and its loveliness made an impact that has stayed with me since. The illumination in the painting flows predominantly from Christ's halo and lantern. Notice that the door is covered over with vines and brambles. Notice also that is has no handle. As the writing beneath the painting conveys, this image represents Revelations, Chapter 3, verse 20: "Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and open the door I will come in to him and will sup with him and he with me." There is no handle because Christ waits for the world to open the door. He does not usurp free will and force himself upon the world. A sublime visual representation of a spiritual principle.
Whether you follow Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, consider yourself an agnostic, atheist, or follow another faith, I hope you will take time this season to enjoy the lights around you: for their immediate pleasure upon the spirit and eye -- and for greater reflection upon the significance of our need for, and exultation over, light.
As you inevitably hear holiday songs and carols this season, notice the prevalence of light and light sources in these songs: be they stars, or the light of holiness or God's glory, candles, or the light of love. We are designed to want to see light triumph against darkness. We are preconditioned to seek out radiance and are designed to admit radiance ourselves.
And as we hustle around and come up against harried shoppers and various forms of world-weary, hassled travelers through this shared earth, let's remember the incandescent words of Martin Luther King Jr.: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Let this season of light be a season of love.