John’s father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
Two days ago we had the Magnificat, today we have the Benedictus: two canticles found only in Luke’s gospel. They are great cries of praise to God, who enters our world “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
I once heard someone say that darkness is primary, that it is more fundamental than light, because light needs fuel but darkness does not; and that darkness is therefore eternal. We are afraid of the dark, he said, so we say God is light. In some ways, he said, we don’t grow up; we are still terrified of the dark bedroom where we cannot see our mother. So we say God is light.
A Christian says that light is more fundamental than darkness. Darkness is nothing in itself, it is just the absence of light. Light is more fundamental than darkness. God could not be an absence. God is a tremendous presence; God is light. Darkness gives life to nothing, but light gives life to everything: all living things are forms of light, stored light-energy from the sun.
We say God is light in the way that we say God is good. The intention is not to limit God to what we know of these; but we say these realities point us towards God; or in St Paul’s phrase, they make us “alive to God” (Romans 6:11).
Tomorrow we celebrate the birth of Jesus. In the obscurity of a windowless cave it will be hard for us to appreciate that the light has come into the world. But to the eye of faith – which is used to darkness – he is “the light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness cannot overcome” (John 1:5).
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