“This life was the light of the human race.” — John 1:4
If by profession or hobby you are a speleologist, then you probably already know that Vietnam is home to the world’s largest cave, called Sơn Đoòng. Sơn Đoòng means “Mountain River Cave.” It is approximately nine kilometers long, its largest chamber is 200 meters high and 150 meters wide, and it contains stalagmites up to 70 meters tall. Having a lifelong aversion to the metric system, I just know that means the whole thing is “really big.”
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring feature of Sơn Đoòng, however, is that one of its chambers houses a subterranean forest! How is that possible? The cave is carved entirely out of limestone, which at certain points along the cave’s roof has proven too weak to stand the test of time and gravity. In the case of this particular chamber, a huge section of the roof has collapsed, allowing light to cascade two hundred meters from the ground-level opening, flooding the vast interior space below. The light makes it possible for life to emerge and thrive where otherwise all would have dark, dank, and lifeless.
A few years ago I watched a BBC video entitled “Life from Light,” in which a speleologist with a heavy Scottish accent marveled at his experience exploring a cave characterized only by darkness, stone, and water, and then suddenly coming upon what he described as a “wonderland” of life and light. There are a variety of animals and plants in the forest, including trees up to one hundred feet tall. The Scotsman concluded his description of the forest in a kind of reverie, exclaiming (for best results, imagine his Scottish accent), “It’s a thriving ecosystem here!” Another explorer with over thirty-five years of spelunking experience described Sơn Đoòng by calling it “overwhelming” and saying it is “by far one of the most unique and unusual caves I have ever seen.”
Having once descended 1200 feet underground into the Detroit Salt Mine for the blessing of a shrine to St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners, I can testify to the utter blackness that encompasses you when you leave all light behind. In the depths of a cave, it’s so dark that you would not dream of seeing your own hand held right in front of your face. To see light again is to see the world transformed, and, as we find in Sơn Đoòng, the gift of the sun’s light brings also the possibility of life, even a superabundance of life where before there was no life to be seen.
The Prologue to John’s Gospel states, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” There is perhaps no metaphorical theme as central to the Season of Advent, nor one more expressive of the mystery of the Incarnation, that that of light shining in the darkness. The Advent wreath is one symbol of the coming of the light of Christ into the world.
The fifth of the “O Antiphons,” the antiphon for the Magnificat during Vespers on December 21, invokes Our Lord under the title “O Oriens,” taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Chapter 9: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”
This prophesy is echoed in the Canticle of Zechariah, which the Church prays each morning at Lauds:
In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
And, of course, the fact that Advent takes place when it does, as the days shrink to their shortest length in the run-up to Christmas, is a reminder of the darkness which enveloped the world before the coming of Christ, and of the power of his light shining into the world he came to redeem.
A number of the best-known Christmas carols echo Scripture in speaking of the coming of Jesus as the shining of light into the world. “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a personal favorite, provides one such example:
O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Christmas carols often help us understand the simple yet profound truths of the Gospel. So, too, does the metaphor of light. What does light help us to do? It helps us to see. It helps us to understand where we are and what’s going on around us. We can even see and understand ourselves better. It helps us to start moving again, without fear of injury or of getting lost. Light takes away fear and gives us a sense of hope. Light brings life.
John’s Prologue continues, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” The cave of Sơn Đoòng serves as an apt symbol for today’s world as well as for the time in which the light of Christ first shone. We might say that today’s culture is one that has reentered Plato’s Cave, spurning not only the light of God but also the light of reason. Do we not grope in the darkness of emotionalism and hedonism, of blind hatreds and the seeming meaninglessness of life? Is not the “cave’s roof” over our heads that of relentless immanence, enclosing a world that fails to look beyond itself? A world that bears the whole burden of explaining itself because people have rejected the transcendent?
At this point we must ask the question: What light do we propose to bring to this world? What is the light we Catholics wish to shine as we engage in the mission of evangelizing today’s world? The light of our intellects? The light of our bright personalities? Of a kind of humanitarian concern?
All of these are good lights, but to bring only these lights would be like bringing flashlights into Sơn Đoòng. We are called not to be sad little flashlight-bearers, but to be “cave roof” smashers, to demolish the false limits people have placed on the world and on their lives, so that the light of the Son of God might shine in. We are called to bring into the world the one light that can dispel the darkness of the shadow of death: Jesus Christ.
Recall the question-and-answer with which Pope Benedict XVI introduced the first-published volume of his Jesus of Nazareth books? Pope Benedict wrote:
What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought?
The answer is very simple: God…. He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and the lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves.
Of all the ways we are called to bring the light of Christ, to bring God himself, into the world, the Eucharist is preeminent. In the Eucharist Bethlehem is present today. Calvary is present today. The Upper Room of Holy Thursday, and Easter Sunday, and of Pentecost, is present today.
Every time the Church offers the Sacrifice of the Mass, another hole is opened in the “cave roof” overhead, the divine light shines down in another place and time. Lives are changed. Death is vanquished. Sin is put to flight.
There is comfort for the poor, and the sick, the lonely, and those in distress of every kind, not because some earthly cure has been discovered, but because the balm of God’s own presence has been applied. This is why we strive to become well-formed Catholics and evangelizers, even at great cost to ourselves: in order to bring to those who dwell in the shadow of death the God Who can save them. We implore the Father to make us shine with the light of Christ in the Prayer After Communion of Holy Mass on December 17: “Nourished by these divine gifts, almighty God, we ask you to grant our desire: that, aflame with your Spirit, we may shine like bright torches before your Christ when he comes.”
We strive to evangelize well, to shine with the light of Christ, because people need Jesus. People need the Eucharist. It is our job to help them know their own need and to see their need’s fulfillment in Christ, his Church, and the sacraments. We are convinced that where there is the Eucharist, the light of the Son will always shine in the darkness. And where the light of the Son shines, there will be always life in abundance.
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