The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined. (Isa. 9:2)
By James M. Stanton
Sometimes a book says more by its title than all the words that compose it. I remember reading such a book many years ago by William Manchester: A World Lit Only by Fire. It tried to describe the world of our premodern ancestors. But the title was what arrested me. For a society in which 24-hour commerce and cities that never sleep are made possible by the wonder of electricity, it is hard to think of a time when light was everything — and hard to come by.
Likely as not, our homes are decorated with lights in this season, in all sorts of configurations and colors. And we do it for fun. We use this wonder as casually and profligately as the water that runs from our taps. At such a time, it is worth remembering that once, light was a precious commodity — a precious and costly commodity, and a dangerous one as well.
The little clay lamps that people bought to light their little hovels were cheap. The oils they used to burn in the night were not. And the little lamps could, if handled improperly, burn down not only the home in which they were lit but whole villages and towns. Such was the power and meaning of light in a world lit only by fire.
It was into such a world that our Lord Jesus was born. He would be called by his followers the light of the world! In a world darkened by fear, indiscriminate power, superstition, and sin, his teaching brought grace, compassion, and understanding. The light he brought was from a source beyond what ordinary human beings possessed. It was the light of God — a bright and clear light that probed the darkness of the soul and revealed the promise of the future.
This light remade life, made it new and wondrous and joyful. It is no wonder that his birth would be marked by the shining of a bright star, or the shining of the glory of the angels singing their songs of praise. St. John would say that in this Jesus was light, a fire that would burn for ages, and that all the darkness in the world could never extinguish!
Jesus came not just to dazzle poor humanity with his light, but to hand it on as well. He once said to his disciples — “You are the light of the world. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket. Rather, they put it on a stand so that it gives light to everyone in the house.” His point was that Christians must in turn become bearers of light, to let the goodness of God shine forth in their lives and bring glory to their Father in heaven.
The earliest Christians worshiped the risen Christ by the light of their small lamps. For the first generations of Christians, it was a dangerous thing — a life-threatening thing — to follow the light of the world. So they worshiped in the night — sometimes so early that the dawn had not yet broken. Every flame reminded them of the darkness of the world and how the coming of Jesus dispelled the gloom of ignorance, sin, and death. It reminded them, too, of their obligation — individually and together — to bear the light of Christ to a sinful, broken world.
So we have come tonight, like those Christians through ages past, to light our candles and sing our hymns, to give thanks to God for the light of Christ. In this simple act we are joined by countless numbers of our brothers and sisters around the world. Some gather in large cathedrals; some in little groups on battlefields far away.
Some come with bright joy in their hearts for new lives born to them in the year past; some with the flickering glow of the lives of loved ones lost. Some come with shining hopes, and some with candles blown by anxiety and fear. Some come with hearts warmed by forgiving grace, some in desperate need of any light on their path. Some come to sing and laugh, some to think or remember or weep. The light of Christ shines for all.
And just as the light of the lowliest candle cannot be put out by the deepest darkness, neither can it be exhausted by those who follow it — no matter how numerous they may be. The light shines for each one and for all of us together without being diminished or lessened in any way.
In a world that takes light for granted, let us draw near the manger with humility, openness, and thanksgiving. The light of Christ is no ordinary light. It has transformed the world. It can transform our lives as well. We come to celebrate this light — which means not only to enjoy it and its blessings, but to honor it by being the lights he called us to be.
The Rt. Rev. James M. Stanton is the retired Bishop of Dallas.