With recent events all around the world and indeed in the United States, our planet seems to be a dark, dark place these days. We turn on the evening news, we open up the morning newspaper or our laptop computers, only to find some new and different tragedy, some dark deed perpetrated somewhere across the planet or the continent.
Sometimes, it happens across the ocean. Sometimes, we don’t have to look far at all. Bombings on the other side of the world. Murder and arson just outside of town. Darkness everywhere we turn.
The great paradox is that I have always associated this time of year with light. I have always associated my own faith with light. I have always associated Christmas, the central celebration—along with Easter—for all Christians with light and lights. Individuals all over the world yearn for the light. Light plays a central role in other faith traditions: the festivals of light, for example, in Judaism and Hinduism. In Islam, the Quran states that “God is the Guardian and Protector of those who believe; He brings them forth from darkness into light.” (2:257).
In Christianity we celebrate Jesus as “the light of the world.” One Sunday night as a child, I walked down the aisle of the James Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, not just to shake the pastor’s hand, but to make “a public profession of faith.” This is the way we put it in Baptist life when someone decides to commit to following Jesus as Lord and Savior.
After that Sunday evening service, my father drove our family home through the streets of Fort Worth, and I remember looking out the window at the night lights of the houses and stores from the back seat of our white Rambler station-wagon. The lights looked different to me that evening; in my excitement, brighter somehow. Even though I was just a small boy, I made a mental note that I wanted to always remember how those lights twinkled so much brighter on that particular evening.
Light has inspired the stories of some of my favorite poets and writers. In “The Loom of Years,” Alfred Noyes wrote:
“In the light of the silent stars that shine on the struggling sea,
In the weary cry of the wind and the whisper of flower and tree,
Under the breath of laughter, deep in the tide of tears,
I hear the Loom of the Weaver that weaves the Web of Years.”
And in his autobiography “Two Worlds for Memory,” Noyes wrote about the association of light with the faith of his father. “If I ever had any doubts about the fundamental realities of religion,” he wrote, “they could always be dispelled by one memory, the light upon my father’s face as he came back from early Communion.”
Now, during this Christmas season and just as we celebrate the dawning of a new year, we drive around town, through the park, around the courthouse square, through the various neighborhoods, and even out into the country to see the festive displays of lights. We have placed strands of lights on Christmas trees in our living rooms. We see white lights and we see lights of various colors.
Another one of my favorite writers, Robert Louis Stevenson, knew the significance of light. He wrote a short story called “The Lantern-Bearers” about a certain ritual of a group of boys. Stevenson wrote that “toward the end of September, when school-time was drawing near and the nights were already black, we would begin to sally from our respective villas, each equipped with a tin bull’s-eye lantern.” The boys hid these lanterns, so that only they knew about them.
“We wore them buckled to the waist upon a cricket belt, and over them, such was the rigour of the game, a buttoned top-coat,” Stevenson wrote. The appeal was in the secret nature of the game. Only they knew about the light they secretly carried. According to the writer, “the pleasure of the thing was substantive; and to be a boy with a bull’s-eye under his top-coat was good enough for us.”
Perhaps Stevenson got the idea about the secret mystery of light and life while looking out the front window of his home in England just at dusk, as the lamp-lighter made his way in front of the house lighting one by one the gas lamps along the street. Young Robert, overcome with the spectacle, called out to his mother. “Mother, Mother, come look!” he cried. “Come see the man punching holes in the darkness!”
Maybe that is how we should consider the lights that we see on our streets, outside our houses, and in our homes. Holes of light punched in the darkness of a sometimes frightful world. “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.'”
Duane Bolin teaches in the Department of History at Murray State University. Duane and Evelyn are members of Murray’s First Baptist Church.