The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
One of the themes that connects the seasons either side of Christmas – Advent and Epiphany – is light. A number of artists in the 16th and 17th century painted a scene that was usually called The Adoration of the Shepherds. A common feature in all of these paintings is that the faces of the people crowding around the manger are illuminated by the light that emanates from the baby lying there. This use of light is striking although not all artistic representations of the birth of Jesus use light in quite that way. In many ways, light is comforting: the lights of port as a ship comes towards harbour; the lights of home after a long journey.
At the end of November a photograph was published in a newspaper that had been taken of the village Swaledale when the snow hit Scotland and the north of England. The photograph shows houses across a snowy landscape are lit by a warm glow as dusk settles over the valley and it looks a cosy and inviting scene.
The idea that people find cottages with lighted windows to be an attractive sight has made a fortune for Thomas Kincade. Kincade is the man who paints the scenes that have been printed an hung in thousands of homes and been put on thousands of jigsaws. An earlier American artist, Edward Hopper, painted Nighthawks, by an earlier American artist, Edward Hopper.
Both of these artists have used the attractive quality of light in their paintings – one of a rural cottage, the other of an urban all-night diner. Both paint their subjects in a stylised fashion, but while one presents a cosy, fairytale image that could be a still from a Walt Disney animated film, the other tells a different story. We wonder what brings together these four characters in Hopper’s Nighthawks. The couple have perhaps been out on the town, but what of the man sitting alone? What bills must the server have to pay that makes working alone through the night a necessity?
Victoria Wood made a documentary a few years ago about weight-loss dieting. She had a lot of interesting things to say about why people are large and want to be smaller. Her conclusion seemed to be that we eat to fill an inner emptiness. She said this: ‘It’s the burger bars that shine out into the darkness. It’s the Chinese chippies. It’s the kebab shop. Food and light and human contact. They are warm and it’s a cold world.’
It can be a cold world and I remember thinking at the time that it is a sorry reflection on us in our churches when the fast food outlets are the places that give the warmest welcome. Warmth, food and light and human contact – these wouldn’t be bad things to offer as part of a church’s mission statement.
But it’s light that I’m thinking about here and up until now I have been concentrating on lights that are warm and comforting, but there are other sorts of light.
Shining a light into dark corners doesn’t always go down well – just ask Julian Assange. Mr Assange is on bail awaiting extradition for charges filed against him in Sweden. However it’s probably safe to safe to say that other countries would like to get him into court, because Wikileaks, his website, has shone a torch on a lot of places that a lot of governments would have preferred to have kept out of the light. Now, I’m not sure that I want everything that our government says to any other government known. Just as it seems reasonable to have privacy in personal relationships, so it’s also reasonable that there should be privacy in international relationships. However, it does seem right that light be shone on the corrupt and unjust practices of governments and international business. I guess that what we need is someone who has unimpeachable integrity and who is willing to give himself completely in the cause of justice and whose very life – and death – radiates light. But where might we find such a person?
I guess that those artists from the classical period knew where to find that person. They saw that the child in the manger shines with a light that both warms and exposes. Maybe we might think of this light as the light that emanates from a lighthouse – warning mariners of dangerous rocks ahead.
There is one final picture that could combine both the warming and the warning elements of light. This is William Holman Hunt’s painting, The Light of the World, the original of which is hung in Keble College Chapel, while a life- size copy can be found in St Paul’s cathedral. The painting is based on a verse from Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will eat with him, and he with me.” I wonder if it would be wrong to rework the painting and even this verse. It’s just that as I see the figure of Jesus, standing at the door with a lamp, I can’t help thinking that as well as standing at the door and knocking to be admitted, Jesus also holds up a lamp to welcome us home where we will share a feast with him. In the words of Coldplay, “Lights will guide you home”. Jesus, who has walked the path that we walk holds a lamp to light our path and then waits with a lamp by the door to the home that he has prepared for us. If we are prepared to look, we will find our way home and there we will eat and drink with him.