A few years ago I came across a child’s version of the type of star projector that planetariums use to display the night sky. I thought this educational toy would be a perfect gift for the children of a young couple who were students of mine at the University. When the toy star projector was assembled we realized that the middle of the day was not the best time to use that toy; there wasn’t sufficient darkness in which to see the light it projected.
We value light, especially at this time of year when the days are growing shorter. Perhaps, too, we should value darkness, of a particular type. Darkness can be an inconvenience, if we’re looking for, or at, something. Darkness, as a metaphor for sin and ignorance of God, can be frightening and repulsive. Darkness can also be the necessary condition in which to see and recognize the light.
The last two lines of today’s selection from Isaiah say, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again. House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Isaiah 2:4-5) This prophecy of the messianic age is very touching. The words of the prophet are endearing, attractive and motivational. They are a description of how life will be when God’s Kingdom comes in its fulness.
As a vision of God’s Kingdom, the words of the prophet are brilliant and inspiring; as a vision of an utopian dream, those words can be utterly destructive. Our Faith tells us to look forward to that future age when God will bring lasting peace to the world. The Scriptures tell us to prepare ourselves for that future age by spending our energies in pursuit of God’s will. Our good sense, however, ought to tell us not to live as if that future age has already arrived (or might soon be realized by our personal efforts).
There is a kind of darkness that is an ally to the light mentioned in the Scriptures; it is the darkness of common sense. We live in a world that is good because God created it so, but it is conditioned by sin and death. Our hearts’ deepest desire is to be good and do good, but we often fail to follow that noble desire. We seek to know God’s will, but are often afraid to embrace it. We live in the darkness of created imperfection, and it is a good and nurturing darkness.
Advent is often described as a season of light shining in the darkness; it is a season that calls for transformation in the depths of our hearts. We live in a society that tempts us to seek a perfect holiday season spent with family and friends, the perfect gifts to give to loved ones, the perfect celebration of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those who buy into the fantasy of perfect people and perfect events supply the rest of us with countless opportunities to practice the virtues of patience and forgiveness. Sadly, they supply themselves with needless disappointment and disillusionment.
Today’s Gospel reading speaks directly to the need for appropriate darkness in our lives. Jesus said, “Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left.” (Matthew 24:40-41) Why will some be left behind on the Day of the Lord? Perhaps, it is because they allowed themselves to be satisfied with the faint light of this world, and in doing so, they became blind to the darkness that makes Christ’s light visible.
The ordinary limitations of the world in which we live (as well as our own normal limitations), is the necessary darkness in which to see the Light of Christ. There is no need to flee the darkness of the normal limitations of living in a finite universe. There is no need to fear our personal, moral limitations. There is no virtue to be found in excoriating others, or our world, for their failings. Rather, we should rejoice that we have sufficient darkness in which to perceive and welcome the light.
The Catholic Faith offers us an unique vision of the upcoming holidays and all of life. The Scriptures tell us that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” (Romans 13:11-12) The Day of the Lord is approaching, but not yet here; we have to wait a while longer for the dawn of God’s promises. In the meantime, we give thanks for the darkness in our lives, a darkness that makes the approaching light shine so brightly.
This Advent I am looking forward to an ordinary and imperfect celebration of Christmas. I’m looking forward to the simple joys and the typical disappointments of life in this world. I’m looking forward to the coming of God’s Kingdom, a light shining in the darkness.