By: Marek Zabriskie
In his play, Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot has a chorus of working people cluster around Canterbury Cathedral as Advent approaches. They sing:
The New Year waits, breathes, waits, whispers in darkness…
Some malady is coming upon us…
Ill the wind, ill the time, uncertain the profit, certain the danger.
O late late late is the time, late too late and rotten the year…
Eliot was writing about the impending murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, but he could just as well have been writing about this annus horribilus and COVID which enshrouds our lives like a deep, dark fog.
Even in privileged Greenwich, we can sense our mortality. We are used to basing our security on the stock market, electric gates and stone walls that hide our homes in a world where God does not always vanquish evil, suffering and death.
In his recent biography of Thomas Edison, Edmund Morris writes, “In his thirty-third year Edison embarked on what he afterward called ‘the greatest adventure of my life… akin to venturing on an uncharted sea.’ His challenge was to take the small incandescent thing he had just perfected – history’s first… electric bulb – and turn it into a vast urban illumination system…”
Now, people around the world must do something similar. We must create space for God’s light to enter our lives darkened by this pandemic, which in our country alone has killed over 270,000 of us and where blindness to racism and climate change cause us to walk in the dark.
William Holman Hunt painted three portraits of Jesus, entitled “The Light of the World,” based on the words of Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me.”
Each portrait shows Jesus carrying a lantern, knocking on a wooden door of an old cottage covered with vines. If you look carefully, you will see that the door has no handle. It can only be opened from the inside. Fifty years after he painted it, Hunt explained that the door represents “the obstinately shut mind.”
We all know someone who has given up on God, disdains religion or who won’t take the first step to dispel the darkness from their life. The door is shut. Jesus knocks, but no one opens. God will never take us by storm. We alone can let Christ, the Light of the World, enter our lives.
A woman in Minnesota, whose son was dying in a hospital in New York City, recently wrote to thank me for visiting her son, reading psalms aloud with him and anointing him with oil before he died. She wrote, “You brightened my darkness.”
Isn’t that what Christians try to do? Our mission is to shine God’s light in the darkness and brighten the lives of others, who are groping in the dark. Early in John’s Gospel we read:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5)
Without Christ’s light there would be no Handel’s Messiah, no Gothic cathedrals, no hospitals, universities or charities to care for the poor. Without God’s light, we would have no hope in an afterlife. Without Christ’s light, we would be alone in the darkest chapters of our lives.
John Henry Newman was only thirty-two when his life fell into turmoil and he fled on a sea voyage to escape and find peace with God. His ship was moored in the Bay of Salerno for sweltering days and nights. One night, as the water lapped against the ship’s hull, he wrote:
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene – one step enough for me.
We learn to walk in the dark by taking one step at a time. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, once served as the Rector of an inner-city church in Baltimore.
For several summers, he led revivals to share his faith in heavily drug-infested areas of the city. Later, someone suggested that they go caroling before Christmas. So, they did. He recalls,
As we sang, old people frightened into their homes came out and sang. Children
joined the parade and sang. Then we came to this one alley. It was like a black
hole. There seemed to be no light going in or coming out… The only light that
you could see was the faint light of one of the crack pipes lighting up with
death. There were people there, but no voices were heard… If ever I saw
Dante’s Inferno, or looked the devil in the face, it was there. Death! Hell!
And it was there that we sang, ‘Silent night, holy night, all is calm all is bright.’
Then something strange happened… maybe someone in an apartment
back in the alley turned on a light. However it happened a ray of light
literally pierced that darkened alley for a moment. Then, at about the same
time, someone in that valley of the shadow of death sang back to us, ‘Sleep
in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.’
I know that the [drug] dealing continues. I know that the powers of hell are
still raging. I know that death still deals its demonic destruction. I am no fool.
But this much I know… for a brief moment, the light did shine in the darkness
and the darkness did not overcome it. For just a moment, like the twinkling
of an eye, you could see through the shadows of our sickness to a shining city
not made with human hands. For just a moment you knew that there is a
kingdom called heaven… and a promise land.
Open the door to God, and let the light pierce your darkness.