“Let there be light!” You would think God would get tired of repeating the same command over and over. The earth is shapeless, barren, wrapped in the darkness that veils the face of the abyss? “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:2-3) Night descends over Egypt at noon? Over the spot allocated to the Hebrew slaves, “Let there be light!” (Exodus 10:21-23. Jerusalem is blind and drunk, sunk deep in the dark pit of wanton idolatry? “Let there be light!” (Isaiah 9:1) Darkness and the shadow of death hang over the world? “Let there be light!” (Luke 1:76-79)
The command never changes, but the light does. Its source remains the God who most often wears a robe of cloud and fire in Scriptures, but the quality of light shifts through the filters of changing circumstance. Into the primal darkness breaks the first light, as yet undivided into sun, moon and stars. Through the night out of season that shrouds stubborn Egypt breaks the sun to warm and illumine the beleaguered Israelites. Into Jerusalem’s long season of blindness breaks the light of God’s word to waken the slothful and light their way to life. But when the entire world is shrouded in death’s dark shadow, God breaks through the clouds in person: not in sunlight, not in word, but in the Child who is the “sun of justice,” the Word who was from the beginning, the law of love embodied as well as spoken, the light of the world.
December 25: we are in the neighborhood of the longest night of the year. The ancient Romans tried to break the iron fist of winter darkness with a festival in honor of the birth of the Unconquered Sun on December 25. It is possible, though not definite, that the Christian community took their cue from the custom to celebrate the newborn light of Christ.
At Mass during the Night, in the Roman Catholic liturgy, we hear: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9). In the service held at dawn, the proclamation is firmer: “Today a light will shine upon us, for the Lord is born to us; and he will be called Wondrous God, Prince of Peace, Father of future ages, and his reign is without end” (Entrance Antiphon, cf. Isaiah 9:1, 5; Luke 1:33) No need to attend Catholic services to have heard this declaration ring out over and over in the “Alleluia Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah! On Christmas morning, the announcement takes on new majesty: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.” And the final, ringing proclamation that we are not talking just about the past: even now, even today, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!” There, we may think, it’s done! But no, there is a coda, a coda we want almost to whisper in awe: “And the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1-14). And this Light of the world is still here, Emmanuel, God with us.
How odd that St. Benedict never mentions Christmas. The Church in Rome had celebrated the Nativity of Christ on this day as early as the fourth century. Liturgical history for the regions outside Rome is sketchy for the period, but if Benedict himself had never experienced it, surely some of his monks had. Yet the Rule says not a word about it.
Ah, but St. Benedict does indeed write of Christmas’s fallout: light. The Rule announces the light of Christ that felled Saul of Tarsus to the ground and raised him to become St. Paul. It is the light that wakens us to the unremitting work of conversion. In the days after Christmas, when the adrenaline from the holiday rush subsides, the to-do list grows short, and the nights are still long, it might tempting to fall asleep amid comforting visions of a warm little stable dancing in our heads, until something new stirs our sense of purpose and energizes us to wake up and move forward. St. Benedict cries out to us then: “Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: It is high time for us to arise from sleep [Rom 13:11]” (RB Prologue 8). Look what awaits us! “ Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God….(RB Prologue 9).
Christmas has reminded us forcefully that the light that comes from God appeared and still lives among us in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, as we have seen. What does this living, vibrant, unquenchable light enable us to see? As the gospels unfold, Christ lays a finger on every corner of our experience and shows us in action a new way to live where once shadows veiled our path. Mind you, it’s not always as comforting as the Christmas crib can be when we see there only a harmless baby, sweetly devoted parents, nice clean attractive shepherds carrying cute little lambs, and some colorful strangers from the east bearing exotic gifts. This light shakes us out of bed and onto our feet.
But we might already have been warned of that at Christmas, had we looked more carefully. A harmless baby? Really? A Child who transforms human history, indeed human being, into the true image of God is harmless? Sweetly devoted parents? Nothing sweet about what their devotion demanded. They were ready to shelter the Child on cold winter’s night, to uproot themselves and flee into enemy territory to protect him from Herod’s ambition, to build and rebuild a home in which they won’t be able to keep him long. The bland Virgin of the Christmas cards became the tower of strength who would let her son go when he must, who would challenge and support him when it was time, who would stand beneath the cross and watch him die. Nice clean, attractive shepherds with little lambs? Hard-working people, disdained by their society, they inspired the story of that good shepherd of whom St. Luke would write, the one who goes out into the wilds and looks everywhere to find one lost sheep, perhaps dirty and bedraggled under a thorn bush, and carry it home. Colorful strangers bearing gifts? Strangers certainly, prefiguring the races and cultures who would travel far from their native beliefs to follow the light that leads to Christ. And those races and cultures prefigure all of us, when the light uproots us from the comforts of familiar thoughts and ways to follow the source of the Light.
At Christmas, we have a powerful preview of all those whose lives are transformed by the Light: the faithful members of the household who obey when difficult circumstances don’t offer much in the way of understanding; the workers who go wherever the Word takes them to do whatever love requires of them to bring the lost out of the darkness into the light; the onetime strangers who see the light and follow it down highways and byways to a new way of life. In other words, we see gathered in the light of the crib obedience, service, and conversion personified.
None of these Christmas characters were Benedictines. None of them had ever heard of St. Benedict and his Rule. But they have something to teach us, during Christmas and afterwards about the Light who wakes us up daily, in every liturgical season, and transforms our hearts through the practice of those very Benedictine values, obedience, service and conversion.
St. Benedict never mentions Christmas. At least, not exactly. But he offers us a way of life that unfolds from the great gift at the heart of Christmas: “the light that comes from God.”
Copyright 2014, Abbey of St. Walburga
Copyright 2014, Abbey of St. Walburga