I am writing this in October, as the days grow shorter and the night temperatures inch toward the freezing point. When I drive my son around our neighborhood early on Sunday mornings, helping him deliver newspapers before the 7:00 o’clock deadline, we make our way in the dark until the very end, when the approaching sun washes the sky with a pale predawn gray. As I was doing dinner dishes I looked out at nothingness, instead of a summertime yard blessed with that peculiar angle of light.
I hate the approaching dark time of the year, and the cold it brings in its wake. I, with my electric lights and heated car, heat pump, quilts, and warm jacket, shrink from what seems like an alien invasion of cold and darkness. I recall warm sunlight, muggy summer heat, and the sociable sound of crickets through open windows.
What must it have been like, in pre-modern times, to make do with a small pool of wavering light cast by candle, oil or kerosene, torches or firelight? Outside, all the dark and scary things real and imagined pressed close against windows and doors. No street lamps, no neon signs, or lighted shop windows relieved the blackness, except when the moon was bright. Inside, everyone drew near one another and the unsatisfactory substitutes for the day.
Years ago when I studied medieval Latin I read some of the early Christian hymns. I was struck by how deeply and movingly they used the themes of light and dark, imploring God’s protection from the demons and dangers of the night. Christ, the Light of the World, still moves us strongly as an image of illumination and salvation, but long ago the thought of that divine light breaking the dreary hopelessness of the ancient world must have created an explosion of joy.
In the morning when I read from the Liturgy of the Hours, I delight in the invocations to Christ as the Light of the World and the prayers petitioning him to enlighten our darkness. I read these first thing after reaching the kitchen with our youngest child, who in fall, winter, and early spring at least manages to get me there in time to watch light break over our particular pocket of darkness in Davidsonville, Maryland. The leaping up of the heart (an image drawn from a candle just lit, or wood catching fire), the uplifting effect of watching the night beaten back by a new day, finds its rightful expression in many phrases addressed to our beloved Sun of Justice, like these: “Shed upon your Church the rays of your glory,” “Shine the brightness of your light upon us,” and of course, Zachary’s exultant celebration of the birth of the Baptist: “In the tender compassion of our God, the Dawn from on high will break upon us.” On and on they go, day after day, dawn after dawn.
All of the centuries upon centuries before the birth of Christ seem, especially from the perspective of Christmas morning, to be one long winter endured by a human race afflicted with severe Seasonal Affective Disorder. The prophetic passages about the birth of a Savior are brief interruptions of a more general gloom: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2), “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6), “Arise, shine; for your light has come” (Isaiah 60:1). How many centuries of waiting had to be endured on the strength of passages such as these?
And at last the wait is over. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). On the near edge of winter, just past the shortest day of the year, such words, such a Word, is a fire to warm our hearts and lighten our way.