A light to enlighten the nations

Fr Alec
Sunday, January 28, 2018 - 9:30am

I was struck some time ago, when watching a documentary about a charity bringing solar electricity to remote African villages, by the revolutionary effect that this could have. It’s tempting, from our privileged wester viewpoint, to see electricity as a sort of luxury. The means by which we watch TV, or operate labour-saving devices like washing machines and computers. We might even think wistfully about a simpler world in which we were free from all the constant jabber and babble of non-stop media and communication that it brings with it. But there, in that village, the arrival of electricity meant one thing above all else. It meant light. Light in the darkness after the sun had gone down. Light that extended the day and which therefore meant that children could do their homework and that their parents could engage in something other than the hard work which filled every precious hour of daylight. Here was a real gift to the community.


The absence of light, an absence which we experience very rarely in this part of the world, (though possibly in Old Basing more than other places) has all sorts of consequences. It limits our movement (as anyone who has ever been camping tried to make a midnight dash to the loos will know). It turns otherwise useful objects into painful obstacles. It provides a place where danger can lurk unseen. It prevents us from learning or communicating. Indeed, robbed of the power of sight and movement, it turns us in on ourselves. The dark winter months are a time of moody introspection and solitude.


It is no coincidence that for millennia the centre for any family or social interaction was the hearth. We instinctively gather where there is light and warmth.


It comes as no surprise then that when biblical writers have reached for an image of God’s action in the world, they have turned time and again to light. And this is how Simeon, in our gospel today, describes the longed-for saviour in whose presence he now finds himself. Here is a light to enlighten the gentiles. The glory of his people, Israel. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.


Immediately this calls to mind the sonorous prologue of the Gospel of John that we hear each Christmas.


In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.


All at once Simeon recognises in this child the antithesis of all the ignorance, and selfishness, the violence and fear that lurks in the dark corners of the world. But his prophecy is not a message of unalloyed joy. ‘A sword will pierce your soul.’ He says to Jesus’ mother. He has lived long enough to know how the world responds to the kind of revelation this child will bring. He knows that for every soul that rejoices in the light of truth, another will find it threatening, that the torch which lights a path for some exposes the misdeeds of others. That all too often we shrink from the light when we find its effect unflattering.


Too often indeed we find it hard to trust that we can come out into the light, with all our weaknesses and shortcomings exposed, and still be loved. That we can admit to all that we don’t know, and still be accepted.


The uncomprehending darkness does not necessarily want to be enlightened. He is a sign that will be resisted.


He came to his own, but his own received him not.


And so here, in Jesus’ early youth, as his parents offer the appointed sacrifice of thanksgiving for their firstborn, we feel already the first cool shadows of the cross beginning to extend over his life. We turn our eyes from Christmas towards Holy Week, and prepare ourselves to take up our cross and follow him through the desert of Lent.


As we process for the last time past the crib, before it is packed away and the stable becomes once more the altar of sacrifice, we should take the opportunity once more to commit ourselves to the light- the light that warms us and guides us certainly, that gives us knowledge and vision, but which also reveals us to ourselves, challenges us to live more fully and truly by the loving example that Christ has set. Invites us truly to believe, truly to believe and take to heart, that whatever shame or disgrace in us the light of Christ lays bare will be met with nothing but the purest love by the one who has taken it all upon himself.