Thursday, December 22, 2011

Light shines brightest in Darkness

Christmas Midnight Mass Year B

When I was a child I used to be afraid of the dark. I shared a room with my older brother but that was no consolation. My brother would take great delight in aggravating my night fears by making spooky noises and sounds in the next bed. He would often tell me stories of ghosts, vampires and witches that will snatch me from my bed and whisk me away into the night. Sometimes I’ll pull the covers over the head to prevent the vampires from sucking my blood dry in the night. I had my revenge – well, at least in my dreams. My dreams often contained a simple narrative where he turns into a werewolf or vampire and then pursues me round the house. The story would, however, always have a happy ending. The both of us would end up in the kitchen where I would take my mom’s vegetable chopper and gleefully chop him to pieces! I also had another manner of revenge. I would plead with my parents to keep a small light lit throughout the night. Of course, my brother hated to sleep with the lights on. But, then it’s payback time!

I can’t remember when I finally slept without the lights on. It seems that I just grew out of it. I had prayed that the darkness would just go away. But eventually learnt to live with it with the sure confidence that I would not be consumed by it and there was always the certain hope of the next day’s dawning light. But being an adult doesn’t mean that we have grown out of all our fears. In fact, many adults have acquired more fears than when they were children. There are many things that we are fearful of, and I’m not even speaking of neurotic phobias. These fears resemble the darkness of our childhood. Such fears can range from fear of creepy crawlies to fear of what appears to be oddly ordinary, such as persons and flying. Still others are frightened of the unknown. Many are frightened of death. Today, most of us continue to live in fear. We fear the uncertainty of the future. We fear that our loved ones will leave us. We fear failure. We fear that people will laugh at us. We fear that no one will love us, and so we try to please everyone in order to make them like us or love us. We fear the changes that are taking place: our children growing up; our friends moving away; losing a job. And because we live with so much fear, we too look for that light in the darkness that will reassure us that everything is fine.

The darkness has come to symbolize everything that doesn’t seem right in our lives – our frustrations, our setbacks, our losses, our failures, our pains and hurts. We try to break free of the darkness on our own, but sometimes the prison in which we find ourselves encased in seems too formidable or large for our very best efforts. But the experience of the darkness has also brought about a greater appreciation of its antithesis. In a way, darkness has taught me to appreciate the light. One often fails to appreciate or recognize the light unless one sees the stark contrast when it is juxtaposed against the dark.

On this Christmas night, we see the interplay of light and darkness. The Prophet Isaiah in the first reading prophesied that a people who live in darkness will see a great light. The fulfillment comes in the gospel story of shepherds caring for their flock in the fields on that first Christmas night. These shepherds are away from the hustle and bustle of urban living, away from the light pollution of the cities that dim our vision of the stars. They truly live and work in darkness. But it is not just physical darkness that we are speaking of. The shepherds were often regarded as the scum and refuse of society. They were frequently stereotyped as petty thieves, cheats, and were regarded ritually unclean by their more pious and righteous neighbours. The darkness in their lives encompassed both sin and alienation. They were proverbially ‘the people who lived in darkness.’ It may seem strange and out of place to see that the angels chose to appear before them to bring good news of the birth of a new King. It would not be surprising, however, if we can understand how light stands out brighter in the midst of darkness. The city folks who were often enamoured by other bright attractions and those others who had everything together that very night, would pay little attention to a strange constellation of stars. The artificial lights of their lives had blinded them to seeing the true light. Only those who live in darkness and could recognize their very situation could hope, long and expect to see the light.

Today, Our Saviour has been born to us! He is that light in the darkness! He is the Messiah long promised by God through the prophets! He is the Prince of Peace and the Lord of Lords! In today’s gospel, the angels announce his arrival with these words: “Do not be afraid!” “Do not be afraid” because a child is born for us, “a son given to us and dominion is laid on his shoulders; and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

All of these do not make any sense to someone who seem to have it all together. Who looks for a Saviour unless one feels the need to be saved? Who searches for the light unless one is experiencing darkness? Who strives for peace unless they are undergoing turmoil? Who cries out for strength unless one knows fear? We often come to a sorry conclusion that Christmas isn’t Christmas till it happens in your heart – a song that tends to equate our subjective feelings with the essence of Christmas. There is often an erroneous presumption that unless everything is perfect or goes according to plan, then our Christmas will be disaster. If this is really the criteria by which Christmas should be judged, then the first Christmas would be a massive catastrophe – the census came at a wrong time, the delivery room was a sanitary nightmare and the birth could have happened under better times and circumstances. Yet, it in spite of so many things going wrong, it remained nevertheless the first Christmas, the greatest Christmas ever celebrated. A celebration of light in the midst of darkness.

This is what Christmas is all about. Christmas isn’t about the absence of darkness, but being able to see the light in spite of the darkness, a light which the darkness can never consume, a light which will prevail, a light which will show us the way. We, who have walked in darkness, in the darkness of sin, in the darkness of our fears, in the darkness of our failures, loss and disappointments, have now seen a great light. It is Jesus Christ. St. Paul tells us in the second reading: “He sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be hive very own and would have no ambition except to do good.” Therefore, “Do not be afraid.”

If you are afraid of being alone, if you are afraid of growing old alone, “do not be afraid” because you will never be alone, God is with you. If you are afraid of the future, if you are anxious about what is going to happen to you, “do not be afraid” because God has already established his kingdom of peace, and nothing will prevail against it. If you are afraid of making certain difficult decisions, if you are afraid of standing up for the truth, “do not be afraid” because “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race and taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God … that we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world.”

On that first Christmas Day, the angels announced this news of great joy to the shepherds. Today the angels and the saints and the entire Church announces this same good news to you: “Today a saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.”

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