Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A Lamp in Dark Places


The holiday season is always a patchwork of light and darkness. Some find joy in family gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas; others grieve in loneliness the memory of absent loved ones.  Some come together around tables laden with traditional foods lovingly prepared and served; others rely on cafeterias or soup kitchens staffed by strangers to serve  from a limited menu; still others eat alone. 

This year is different.  The darkness is spreading.  Today, as I write on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, our county goes on red alert and begin strict shutdowns. Last week, the authorities added a few additional restrictions to those required by level yellow security in the hopes of staving off a move to level orange before Thanksgiving.  This morning we are still on enhanced yellow.  At five o’clock, we will jump straight to red.  Personal gatherings of any kind are banned; grocery stores are confined to limited service; restaurants will offer only curbside takeout.  What will happen to the soup kitchens I do not know.  And I doubt that even restaurant and grocery stores dumpsters will have much to offer the homeless who depend on them.

 But St. John’s gospel breaks through the enveloping dark to recall us to hope:  “1In 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; the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” The light has a name.  Jesus said“ I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12) This is not wishful piety but the deepest truth of our darkest days. 

 These times challenge us to be even more true to our Benedictine identity as people of listening hearts.  It is not so easy to hear the Word of God speaking to us when all the news around us seems bad. But that is precisely what we need to do at times like this.  A number of the psalms we pray in the Liturgy of the Hours remind us that God, not our limited selves or some malicious evil spirit, is in charge of the universe and is to be found always at work there.  See for example Psalm 95, Psalm 100, or Psalm 104.  St. John reminds us that the God whose presence and will permeate the world is not an impersonal force or, again, a destructive enemy.  “God is love,” he says, in no uncertain terms (John 4;7). 

 The times here throw down yet another challenge: how do we recognize or understand the God of love when we are all in danger, when loved ones fall ill and perhaps die, when even the promise of vaccines is darkened by the fear of too-hasty and too-untested distribution, by scientific warnings that the vaccines themselves may have serious negative side effects?  I have no comforting answer to this question. 

 What I do have is a conviction that what we can and must do is what St. Benedict tells us: seek God in all things.  We are not asked to seek explanations for God’s behavior but to look for  every sign of God’s creative presence even in the most unexpected of places.  In the kindness, solicitude and generosity of others; in the courage of sufferers who do not lose faith or hope; in the care offered with consideration and competence by exhausted health care workers; in the community of the afflicted, frightened or bereaved, we look for the threads of light in the darkness.  St. Peter urged the early Christians already beset by conflicts within the community and persecution without “You will do well to be attentive to [God’s word], as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (1 Peter 1:19).  And, says the Book of Revelation, that lamp, like the light it holds, is also a person, the person we cherish above all others, the Christ who transcends all darkness: the heavenly Jerusalem the visionary saw “had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb” (Rev 21:23).

 We would probably all much prefer an explanation, but God knows that what we need in all circumstances is not concepts too big for us to grasp, but God’s presence and loved  enfleshed in a humanity like our own, apart from sin , so Jesus told his first followers, and us, “…behold, I am with you always” (Matt 28:20).  After all, as we will soon be singing during Advent, that is his other name: “Emmanuel” (Matt 1:23).  And Emmanuel is there among us, with patients, with caregivers, with loved ones, with concerned strangers.  Always.