A dear friend in our diocese posted this story a few days ago:
Many priests were gathered for Vespers during an ecumenical council at the Vatican.
Right in the middle, the power went out, and the priests were cast into darkness.
Without missing a beat, the Benedictines continued on in prayer with the liturgy of the hours from memory.
The Franciscans immediately broke into spontaneous praise for the gift of darkness and light, marveling at god's creation. The dominicans broke into a debate about the significance of darkness and light. The jesuits broke into a debate about whether or not this excursed them from their obligation to pray Vespers that night. Meanwhile, the diocesan priest excused himself, went to the cellar, and changed the fuse.
Light. It’s one of our greatest gifts. John begins both his Gospel and his first letter with discourses on the significance of light. It’s in his Gospel alone that we have the story of Jesus giving sight to the man who was born blind. Jesus immediately prefaced that healing by declaring, “While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world” (John 9:5). John wrote of Jesus, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. And the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not extinguish it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through Him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of the Light. That was the true Light Who, coming into the world, gives light to every man” (John 1:4-9).
Then in our reading from First John, you heard, “This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:5-7).
Saint Bede, best known by his moniker, The Venerable Bede, was the first historian to record the early spread of Christianity in the British Isles. Around 710 ad he wrote these well-known words in his commentary on the Book of Revelation: “Christ is the Morning Star Who, when the night of this world is past, brings to His saints the promise of the Light of life and opens everlasting day.”
These words were drawn from Revelation 2 in the letter to the church at Thyatira, where the Spirit tells John to write, “To the one who overcomes, I will also give the Morning Star. Let him who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches” (2:26, 28, 29). Undoubtedly Bede was also influenced by this reference at the very end of Revelation, “It is I, Jesus, Who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright Morning Star” (22:16).
In powerful words that mark the climax of the book of Job, God asks, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4, 6, 7). Here it is: that just as the morning stars heralded the first creation, the first coming of the light, which caused such joy among the heavenly beings, so Christ, the Morning Star, the pre-eminent One, the first-born of all creation, reveals the new creation. He is the Light that shines in the darkness, a Light that the darkness cannot extinguish. As the morning star is the harbinger of dawn, so Christ in His coming reveals God's eternal purposes: “Christ is the Morning Star Who, when the night of this world is past, brings to His saints the promise of the Light of life and opens everlasting day.”
Charles Wesley wrote our Sequence hymn, one of the greatest hymns of all time:
Christ, Whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only Light,
Sun of Righteousness, arise,
Triumph o'er the shades of night.
Dayspring from on high be near;
Daystar in my heart appear.
Visit then this soul of mine,
Pierce the gloom of sin and grief;
Fill me, radiancy divine,
Scatter all my unbelief;
More and more Thyself display,
Shining to the perfect day.
Wesley draws magnificently on Biblical imagery, the promise of the Sun of Righteousness from Malachi 4:2, and the words of Zacharias in the Benedictus from Luke 1: “In the tender mercy of our God, the Dayspring from on high has visited us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:78, 79); and this text from II Peter: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the Morning Star rises in your hearts” (1:19).
So Bede and Wesley speak as one. “Christ is the Morning Star;” “Christ is the Sun of Righteousness.” Wesley relates this to our personal piety: Christ the light dissipates sin, grief, and unbelief; the light of Christ reveals mercy, and brings inward illumination. Bede, too, points to salvation: “Christ brings to His saints the light of life and opens everlasting day.”
The earliest Christian tradition took over something special from its Jewish roots: to look towards the east towards Jerusalem, where Jews believe that Messiah will come and where Christians believe that Jesus will come again. Hence, the eastward orientation of this and many other churches. We call this by its Latin name, oriens, a word that means “easterly,” from which we have our English cognate, the Orient. Even the very word “orientation” comes from this Latin word, though obviously it has lost any specific directionality.
There’s something glorious about standing in this church on a sunlit morning with the eastern sun shining through the Resurrection window. It reminds us that we rise to meet Christ, the Dayspring, the Daystar, that creation itself witnesses to redemption; and that as Christ casts His light on us, we are called to spread that light, wherever the night denies it, wherever darkness tries to suppress it, to carry Christ's light into all dark places. It reminds us that the Light of Christ banishes darkness and that one day God will abolish it forever.
But behind this there’s also a moral question: how do we live as those who grasp that the “everlasting day” (to quote Bede) or the “perfect day” (to quote Wesley) is before us? How might this change the way we walk in a world beset with darkness? How will we respond in faith to the challenge of Jesus that now we are to be His lights in the world, lights set on a hill, beaming forth the word of truth? God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world.” But now it’s up to us to beam forth that light, that others, seeing our light, will turn their eyes on Jesus until the things of this dark world will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.
Some of you may know a contemporary hymn with both words and music by an English church musician, Graham Kendrick: Shine, Jesus, Shine. Since its composition in 1987 it’s been sung around the world at everything from Billy Graham Crusades to gatherings with the Pope. Kendrick wrote this about its composition:
I had been thinking for some time about the holiness of God and His desire for us to live continually in His presence. My longing for revival in the churches and spiritual awakening in the nation was growing, but also a recognition that we cannot stand in God's presence without “clean hands and a pure heart.” I remember standing in my music room trying different approaches. The line “Shine, Jesus, Shine” came to me, and within half an hour I had finished the chorus, all but some “polishing.”
It’s a song about light, about Jesus as the Light of the World, about love and truth, about God’s grace and mercy. Its message is timeless, but it’s changed many lives in the last 30 years:
Lord, the light of Your love is shining,
In the midst of the darkness, shining.
Jesus, Light of the world, shine upon us;
Set us free by the truth You now bring us.
Shine on me, shine on me.
As we gaze on Your Kingly brightness
So our faces display Your likeness
Ever changing from glory to glory
Mirrored here may our lives tell Your story
Shine on me, shine on me.
Shine, Jesus, shine: fill this land with the Father's glory.
Blaze, Spirit, blaze: set our hearts on fire.
Flow, river, flow: flood the nations with grace and mercy.
Send forth your word, Lord, and let there be light.
Light. It’s ours to treasure, but it’s ours to share.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen