Talk Four: The Light of the World
Tonight at 11.30pm at Christ Church, we will celebrate what is traditionally known as Midnight Mass. It is the first service of Christmas. It is one of my favourite services of the year. I know that theologically Easter is the main season of the Church’s year, but there is something special about Christmas, even if it has become commonplace for Christians to bemoan the sentimentalizing and commercialization of the season that undoubtedly goes on.
One of the moments I like the most is when, in the service, we light the final Advent Candle. Throughout Advent, in Church each Sunday, we have been counting the days to Christmas by lighting a candle to celebrate those who prepared the way for the coming of our Lord. The ancient patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the prophets of the Old Testament; John the Baptist; and, last Sunday, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of our Lord. Now tonight, we light the final candle of the Advent wreath as we celebrate the birth of our Saviour himself.
Historically, candles were simply a necessity as there was no other way of lighting the Church, but churches such as my own continue to light them, even though we now have very efficient modern lighting. There is something about candle-light, which is why candles are also so popular even with those who have no specific religious faith. But for Christians, such as myself, there is more to it than that: candles serve as a symbolic reminder of who Jesus is and what it is we are celebrating tonight.
Jesus said: ‘I am the light of the world’. St John in the Gospel reading for tonight wrote: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ What Christians all around the world will be celebrating tonight is not simply the birth of a baby, but that this baby was God sending his light into to a dark world. And even today after 2,000 years the darkness has not overcome it.
It is not though for want of trying. As we look around our world there is much darkness. Nation still goes to war against nation. Politicians increasingly use the politics of hate to advance their cause. And even in rich developed nations, social problems remain as intractable as ever. No sooner have we got on top of one problem than another takes it place. Fewer people today, for example, are dying from starvation then ever before, instead more and more people are dying from diseases caused by over-eating. Drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, despair, and loneliness are all too common in even the most materially well-off societies. And who would have thought that here in Hong Kong childhood suicide would be the issue it is?
For many this Christmas, it will feel as if darkness is all there is. Tragedy, sickness, bereavement and little to look forward to in life will for many people be a darkness that threatens to overwhelm them in the midst of all the celebration and partying.
We try to find a light in this darkness and turn to various sources in the hope of finding it, but the more we tell ourselves that we don’t need anyone or anything but ourselves and that the answer to life’s mysteries and problems lies within us, the more we discover an ancient truth: ‘we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves’.
It is into this dark world that Jesus was born and it is in this dark world that his light continues to shine. And it is into the lives of those who feel overwhelmed by the darkness of this world that that the light of Christ can bring hope and peace. Far from being a form of escape, a temporary break from the madness around us, the Light of Christ shows us a way out of the darkness and the way to life and peace.
St John, again, writes that ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ We can’t save ourselves, but the lighting of a candle reminds us that there is someone who can. And as I light the Candle tonight, I will thank God that he who is the Light of the world has saved me and pray that others may find and be saved by that Light too.