“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” — John 1:5
“While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” — John 9:5
“Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.” — Ephesians 5:8-9
The metaphors of light and darkness apply to many things. They evoke some of humanity’s most primal abilities and disabilities, motivations, hopes, and fears. The metaphors of light and darkness say a great deal about what people are experiencing during this COVID-19 (Coronavirus) crisis.
The darkness of this moment is obvious to everyone. People are worried about contracting the virus, anxious about their own health and that of others, intimidated and saddened by the requirements (legitimate as they certainly are!) of social distancing, and deeply concerned about an economic collapse and the grave consequences such a collapse would bring.
There is a lot of darkness right now. No one disputes it. Before saying anything about the light of today’s situation, perhaps a word about the contrast between light and darkness is in order.
I often spend my vacation time staying at a family home on Lake Huron. Of the many things that are different in that part of “Up North,” Michigan, one of those things is the dramatic change that happens as night falls, and then as the sun rises in the morning. When night falls, the sky becomes so dark that the stars are brilliant and many more of them are visible than I ever see at home. And then in the morning, very early in the morning during the summer, the sun rises over Lake Huron, and then seemingly moves to the foot of my bed. It is so bright and warm that sleep becomes impossible without closing the blinds, which I never do. I would never want to miss the sunrise, as painful as it can be some mornings.
The experience of such extremes illustrates the sharp contrast between light and darkness. And to some degree it gives us a good image as we consider the Second Reading and Gospel for Holy Mass of the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
The image of “darkness” is often used to describe evil and the sinfulness of the world, whereas Jesus comes as the “light of the world,” the “light (that) shines in the darkness.” And we know that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus also says that we are supposed to be the “light of the world,” as He is.
But ordinary experience of intense darkness and light differs with the message of the scriptures. Experience presents a contrast between two seemingly equal forces. Good and evil, or, more to the point, God and Satan, are not two equal but opposing forces battling for mastery of the world. There are religions that believe in this kind of fundamental duality in the order of things, but that is not the faith of the Catholic Church.
God’s power is the only absolute power. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the Lord and King of the universe. In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” It’s easy to sail quickly by the words “I am” but this is one of the many instances in John’s Gospel when Jesus uses the expression used by the Lord in the Old Testament to identify Himself, “I AM.”
Satan is powerful, and sin has a terrible influence in this world. Yet the devil is still a creature. God is the Creator. God is not only of a different order of being, but He is being itself. Jesus comes to cast out the darkness of this world—healing the blind man, casting out demons, teaching the truth about God and about our lives, forgiving sins, dying and rising for us, and giving us the Gift of the Holy Spirit. He casts supernatural light upon the world, enkindling a divine flame in the hearts of His faithful ones.
I think it is especially important to make this point today, when people are feeling isolated and when the world seems very dark. It can be easy to slip into thinking that the world has a kind of “yin and yang” dynamic to it, with good holding sway for a period, followed by a time when evil dominates.
That is not the Catholic faith, which is to say that God has revealed that the world works very differently from this. This is a fallen world. Mankind has chosen sin and became enslaved by it. But Jesus Christ has come, has won a definitive and final victory over sin and death, and invites all who will believe in Him to share in His victory forever.
And through the members of His Church Christ wants to invite the whole world to share in His victory. Sometimes, Catholics slip into thinking that they have been drafted onto the winning team because of some special quality of theirs, and they look down on others as the world’s losers. But even members of the Church become losers if they give in to pride. And they may find themselves “cut” from Jesus’ “team” if they don’t get off the bench and compete for their own salvation and for the salvation of all the people around them.
Everyone goes through times—maybe a bad day, or a few weeks, or even a really rough year—when goodness seems to be eclipsed, when the light of life seems to be all but snuffed out. It is easy to become depressed about the situation of the world today. It is easy to feel crushed by an avalanche of family problems, or work problems, or sickness. Seeing their own sinfulness for what it is, how sin darkens their hearts, prompts faithful Catholics to seek the light of Christ in confession. But sometimes even faithful people only see darkness all around them, and they feel powerless to do anything about it. What should you do if you find yourself in this “dark place?” Here are a few suggestions:
- Admit your powerlessness! Sometimes, well-meaning self-help advice focuses on harnessing all of your personal power, but the truth is that we need God’s power. That’s not an excuse for laziness, but it is a simple truth about life: God is in charge of the world, and we need to ask and allow Him to take charge of us.
- Give thanks for the “bright spots” in your life. There are always things for which we need to give thanks, and it can become all-too-easy to become absorbed by the evil and negative elements of life.
- “Cast all your cares on him, because he cares for you” (I Pet 5:7). The Lord is our Shepherd, as we pray in Psalm 23. When we are tempted to doubt God’s presence and care for us and those we love, we need to be very intentional about putting our trust in Him and asking Him for the gift of even greater faith.
- Know that God is calling and empowering you! Having admitted that alone we are powerless, we become empty not so that we can stay empty, but so that God can fill us with His life and power. He has in mind for each of us some mission to bring His healing and peace, His truth and goodness into the world. All of us share in the mission, not only of growing close to God ourselves, but of bringing other people to God and God to them. If we don’t understand what God is calling us to do, we should pray about it and ask Him. We can also ask someone we trust to help us figure out what are our particular missions. It is okay to work together—Christianity is a “team sport!”
These are just some steps we can take to do what St. Paul teaches us to do when he writes, “live as children of light.” The surest sign that we are not alone, and the guarantee of God’s light and power coming to fill us, is in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. What looks like bread and wine is really and truly the light and love, the Body and Blood of the Son of God, given to us as our food and drink.
True, the vast majority of us are unable to participate in the Mass or to receive Holy Communion during these difficult days. But the light of Christ is still present in the Masses being offered by priests throughout the world, it is present in the tabernacles of all of our churches, and His light is present in each of us when we offer our lives to our Heavenly Father along with Jesus, asking for the gift of a spiritual communion. May we always be grateful that Jesus is our Shepherd and King, and that the Father has “so loved the world that he gave us his only Son” (Jn 3:16).