My first December in the Holy Land, I was returning from Nazareth to Magdala with a carload of decorations to prepare the newly inaugurated Guest House for Christmas. Slowly driving along the curvy and empty two-lane highway at night, I navigated the hills and turns of the unlit road through the obscure Galilean countryside. Fear and frustration mingled inside, forced to dimly make my way by memory without a GPS because I had forgotten to bring my phone’s charging cable.
I began to pray for reassurance, desiring to see any light to help distinguish the landscape. No support came from the sky with its new moon, where even the usually cooperative stars where masked by high dark clouds. My eyes fruitlessly scanned the horizon for light reflecting off water to confirm my final approach toward the Sea of Galilee, and thus to Magdala on its western shore. I moved forward in anxious obscurity.
The Christmas lights I brought eventually helped brighten this dark time of year when both Christmas and Hanukkah (the Jewish Festival of Lights) are celebrated. These feasts of faith, both observed when it is physically difficult to see, underline that belief in God gives steady light, even when our senses are darkened.
In this passage from the Song of Songs, the Bride is tested as she seeks and calls out in the night, driven to unfamiliar places by deep love that pushes her forward. She doesn’t give up her search despite being wounded and seemingly abandoned in the dark.
At night I sought him
Whom my heart loves…
I sought him, but I did not find him.
I called out after him,
But he did not answer me… (Song of Songs 3:1, 5:6 )
St. John of the Cross whose feast day is celebrated in December, famously taught the ‘Dark Night’, both of the senses and of faith. These two ‘darknesses’ draw to us into ‘new light’, beyond what is familiar. While not understood, the effects of this ‘invisible light’ work like medicine on the body, mathematical clarity on the mind, or love on the heart. They are lanterns in the soul according to John, illuminating and heating dark spaces within us, opening up broader vision and deeper intimacy with God on our journey of faith.
O lamps of fire! In whose splendors
The deep caverns of feeling,
Once obscure and blind,
Now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
Both warmth and light to their Beloved. (Living Flame of Love, John of the Cross)
Perhaps this image from John of the Cross was inspired by the Christ-child, born in an obscure cave on a dark night, giving forth a rare, warm and exquisite light to mankind, His Beloved.
We again decorated the 10 foot Christmas tree that brightens the fountain courtyard in Magdala, together with the palms trees dressed in lights. Our visitors – those with faith and those without – enjoy the light and warmth it gives. It seems to proclaim, “the true light, which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” (John 1:9)
May all of us who decorate our homes with lights this Christmas, as well as those who gaze upward seeking guidance from starlight, be reminded of our faith in the invisible God who was made visible to us as a new-born child in Bethlehem. May we trust God in the darkness of our lives through which He gently moves us beyond what we currently see and are comfortable with – our darkness is never too much for Him! Rather, through our darkness, God guides us into wonderfully new light and greater warmth. Truly, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)