“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great LIGHT. Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a LIGHT has shone.” (Is. 9:1) Winter is so dark, but winter darkness is the backdrop for Christmas light.
Did you know that in Bethlehem the early Christians always celebrated Christmas Mass at night? By the fifth century the pope in Rome also celebrated a Christmas Mass at night. What’s behind the tradition? Why bring people out in the middle of the night during the darkest time of the year? The first people to learn about Jesus’ birth were “shepherds . . . keeping the night watch over their flock.” (Lk. 2:8) The Night Mass was a way to remember the night-time birth of Jesus.
That was the historical significance, but there was also a symbolic significance. Jesus is the Light of the human race, especially for those who dwell in the land of gloom. “Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a LIGHT has shone.” On Christmas Day John declares, “The LIGHT shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn.1:5)
People in the darkest places hunger for God’s light. When you dwell in the land of gloom, you yearn for the light. I am thinking of the home-bound or homeless, of immigrants or prisoners, and those with life-threatening illnesses or the dying. When you live each day with physical weakness or mental frailty, you hunger for the light. When you are isolated or seen as unwanted and a burden on society, then you crave God´s merciful light to lift you out of that place of gloom.
People in the darkest places are zeroed in on Christ shining in the darkness. I saw this while serving on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota. One Christmas in a little mission parish, the people had decorated the church, and a little boy named Larry Brown proudly pointed to the string of Christmas lights that he draped around the crucifix behind the altar. His eyes were beaming with pride as he asked me, “Do you like the lights around the crucifix, Father?” I said, “It looks great, Larry,” even though it was not how I would have decorated the church for Christmas!
However, Larry was probably instructed by the elderly ladies to put those lights around the crucifix. They know the Light that flows from Jesus. In their daily struggle, they humbly gaze on the cross or the image of divine mercy. Those Christmas lights framing the crucifix may not have looked elegant, but they expressed the truth proclaimed by John, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
We have had a gloomy year in the Church. In our weariness, we need to remember that “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We should learn a lesson from the people dwelling in the land of gloom – the home-bound, the poor, the sick, immigrants or the imprisoned. We often ignore these people, but they can help us see the Light of Christ. In humble faith, they are not absorbed by the darkness, but fix their gaze on the Light streaming from the Risen Lord.
Even more, notice how they are shining in the darkness. When you visit a sick person of faith, the peace of Christ fills their hearts, and you sense it when you speak with them. The home-bound pray with perseverance. It’s inspiring to visit them. They illuminate the Church even though they are not here with us. We are strengthened by their faithful prayer.
Some of the most Light-hearted people are the poor who have little or nothing; yet, they emanate joy because Christ dwells in the least (Mt. 25:40). Ten years ago, I accompanied college students on a mission trip to El Salvador. After the trip, they said that one of their most memorable experiences was, ‘How joyful the people are, even though they have nothing.’
The Light of Christ infiltrates his disciples, especially the poor and the humble. It shines in the dark world, if only we have eyes to see. “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins marveled at the power of this light in a poem, as he wrote: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil. It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil.” We see the grandeur of God flaming out in disciples who show mercy.
Ten days ago, I visited St. Joseph’s Church in Cheyenne where the youth group was serving the homeless and sitting with them to offer a listening ear. The light of Christ filled the hall with their simple acts of kindness. Think of how many times this happens in thousands of parishes across this nation. Think of all the disciples “shining as a flame of God’s mercy in the world.” (Pope Francis)
Although our hearts have been saddened this year by clergy who have stumbled in the darkness, tonight remember all the priests who faithfully serve each day patiently hearing confessions, visiting the sick, celebrating the Sacraments, teaching the faith, mourning with people at funerals and rejoicing with them at weddings. In the universal church, there are 400,000 priests radiating the Light of Christ.
In even greater numbers, religious sisters are shining stars in a dark world. In October I met Sister Patricia Murray. She is the Executive Director of religious women in the world, and she described the work of religious sisters serving on the peripheries – working against human trafficking, teaching in poor missions, schools or universities, assisting refugees and immigrants, serving in healthcare or in prisons. Worldwide there are more than 700,000 sisters shining in the darkness. They are fulfilling the command of Jesus who said, “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 5:16)
When we think of all the faithful disciples “shining as a flame of God’s mercy in the world,” it calls to mind the words of St. Paul in the letter to the Ephesians, “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of Light. For light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.” (Eph. 5:8-9)
Tonight marvel at the Light flowing from the crib and the cross. Remember that God’s power is stronger than sin and sickness, Satan and death. “Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a LIGHT has shone.” (Is. 9:1) See how his Light is shining in the darkness. It radiates through every good deed you do. It is multiplied in every faithful disciple.
Finally, ask the Lord to renew his Light where it has grown dim because of the frailty of flesh, or slavery to sin, or the demon of discouragement. With humility and confidence, ask the Lord to conquer any darkness in your life and to empower you to walk as a child of Light.
The Light of Christ is the strongest force in the universe. “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn. 1:5)