“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Once the sun goes down, our two-year old son John has the habit of pointing outside asking to see the moon. So, we put our socks and shoes on and go outside to try and find the moon.
On some nights, we see the moon but on most nights, we do not. John, however, finds “other” moons to point at. He points at the light on our neighbor’s front porch and says, “moon!” He sees a street lamp and says, “moon!” Of course, any kind of light shining in the darkness is the moon for John.
In a world that is so often filled with darkness, we are constantly looking for light to help us navigate the nighttime of our lives. And when we cannot find the True Light, we resort to looking for manufactured lights to help guide the way. Using theological lingo, these manufactured lights are called idols – they are substitutes for God.
I recently listened to the NPR program called Science Friday. The radio broadcast focused on how the growth of cities have impacted the evolution of various species. During the first part of the episode, they talked about city lights and how those lights have impacted nocturnal species such as insects.
Normally, nocturnal insects would set their evening course by the light of the moon. However, with lights lighting up the night sky, they are now drawn to street lamps and porch lights where they go to die. I’m sure you’ve all had to clean out your porch light covers because of all the dead bugs.
We, too, live in a world that is so often governed by artificial light. Electricity and the constant emitting of blue light from phones and tablets provide a wonderful metaphor to a culture that is not only exposed to unrelenting physical light but also unrelenting spiritual substitutes for the True Light.
The problem isn’t simply the darkness. The problem is that we don’t let ourselves experience the darkness. In this day and age, it is so easy to replace God with idols to fill our earthly wants and desires. Our culture doesn’t like to be uncomfortable. Therefore, we are over stimulated and blinded from the True Light.
Studies have shown that those of us who live in larger cities with “light pollution” are at increased risk of obesity, cancer, depression, loss of sleep, and so on. Likewise, our spiritual lives are impacted in much the same way when artificial light tries to compete with the True Light. Our spirituality becomes anemic or watered-down. We become less aware to the Truth and fall prey to half-truths and lies that draw us away from the True Light.
During my time as a parish priest, I have had many occasions to walk into a dark church at night for some reason or another. Inevitably, the first thing I notice when I walk into a dark church is the Sanctuary candle – the candle that stays lit above the Tabernacle where we keep the reserve bread and wine. This candle signals that the living Christ is present in this place.
The Sanctuary candle is impossible to miss in the dark. However, if I come into the church during the day or when the lights are on, that light does not immediately capture my attention. I am drawn to the flowers or to the windows or to the organ or cross. For the sake of a metaphor, the darker it is, the easier it is to see the light shining in the darkness.
So, during your prayers this week, I invite you to ask, what artificial lights do I need to turn off or get away from so that I may see the True Light more clearly? What false idols do I need to ask God to shatter so that I may know and follow the True Light?
As you ask these questions, don’t be afraid to ask a friend or one of your clergy to sit with you in the darkness to help you see the light of Christ more clearly. You don’t have to sit alone in the darkness left in the wake of death or divorce or unemployment or disease or failure.
I am reminded of a great scene in the movie Apollo 13. Astronaut Jim Lovell, who is played by Tom Hanks, talks about an instrument malfunction on his airplane while flying over the Sea of Japan. To make matters worse, the aircraft carrier’s lights were off because of combat conditions.
It was pitch black. He couldn’t see. His radar was jammed. He couldn’t use the radio. When he turned on the map light, everything in the cockpit shorted out – instruments, lights, he didn’t know what his altitude was. Because he was running out of fuel he thought about ditching into the ocean.
He looked out over the ocean and saw what he described as a phosphorescent green carpet. It was algae that was churned up in the wake of a ship. It was leading him home. Lovell reflected, “if my cockpit lights hadn’t shorted out, then there is no way I would have been able to see that. You never know what events are to transpire to get you home.”
Sometimes our cockpit lights have to short in order for us to find the True Light. Sure, this might cause panic and disorientation and thoughts of ditching into the ocean. I can only imagine that this John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness announcing the True Light caused panic and disorientation. John the Baptist calls us into the wilderness – into the darkness – away from the artificial light – so that our eyes can adjust to the True Light.
One of the great misconceptions of Christianity is that following Jesus will make your life easier. I, for one, have not found that to be true. In fact, following Jesus has made my life more complicated. Following Jesus has call me to walk in darkness, but in this darkness, I have found the brightness of the True Light.
God never promised following the True Light would be easy. It requires a faith that believes not matter how dark things get – the True Light will shine one. Only in the fullness of time, as John of Patmos describes in Revelation, will we see that True Light completely. There will be no moon or stars or sun. There will be the Lamb of God – the True Light – lighting the city of God.
But until then, darkness will be all around us. Death and disease and failure and broken relationships will cast a long shadow in our lives. The good news is that we proclaim a faith that says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. We do not have to spend our lives buzzing around artificial light, light that might seem more convenient, but light that will blind us to the True Light, light that will zap the life out of us, light that will eventually burn out and fail us.
Like my son John, when it gets dark outside, we want to go searching for that light shining in the darkness. Often, we become distracted by the lesser lights, by manufactured lights that blind us from the True Light. We are like insects drawn to those blue zapper lights.
But we have a God who, in the Word made flesh, comes into our world to short out the artificial lights of this world. We have a God who, through his truth and grace, comes to shatter the false idols of our lives so that we may see the True Light shining in the darkness.
As the artificial lights of this world go out on you or fail you or zap the life out of you, may you know the light that is impossible to miss – the light that no amount of darkness can overcome. Amen.