Let us light a candle in the darkness – Entering Advent together

As the days grow shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, and the darkness falls earlier in the interior of British Columbia, Canada’s most western province, the lovely hymn by the former Dean of Canterbury Cathedral (and the host of The Garden Congregation for almost two years) Dr. Robert Willis, the text and music of Let us light a candle in the darkness speak a musical calm to me and likely to you, my dear readers.

In a world where people walk in darkness
Let us turn our faces to the light,
to the light of God revealed in Jesus,
to the Daystar scattering our night.

For the light is stronger than the darkness
And the day will overcome the night.
Though the shadows linger all around us,
Let us turn our faces to the light.

Breathing the spirit of John 1:5 (The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it), and in naming the energy and presence of the risen Christ in 2 Peter 1:19  (. . . until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts), Dean Robert’s text includes a refrain which captures so well the tension between the light and the dark. To carry both is often painful and tiring; the alternative of despair however is to be avoided at all costs. There is always hope, though such light is sometimes dimly projected. As a good photographer will attend to both the lights and the shadows of a scene, knowing that there is light even in the darkest places of the image and its setting; both are necessary components in the creation of a balanced and truthful artistic composition which in the words of Thomas Merton helps us to pay attention to what is there (Addresses to novices, 1960s).

Lest this sound too theoretical, personally I find the contrast between light and dark — between Gospel hope and lived reality – helpful, as I consider the health of dear friends, some nearing death and others who have recently died. I find it helpful as I watch evil prowl about – the unending invasion of Ukraine; the dismal outcomes of COP-27; the increase in gun violence throughout North America. Are we improving our responses to the pernicious evidence of racism in the wealthiest countries on earth? Here in BC, are we improving housing for all; are we helping addicts recover and reducing the number of overdoses and suicides? Our times will not be titled “the Ecojustice years.” If I sound like a grizzled activist I guess I am. And then, there’s the Church – Dean Robert however remains hopeful and disciplined.

In a world where suff’ring of the helpless
Casts a shadow all along the way,
Let us bear the Cross of Christ with gladness
And proclaim the dawning of the day.

Once more, photography comes to mind in reading and singing these verses. The shadow cast by well-lit subjects creates interest and identifies context – for example in the portrait work of Josef Karsh (I think of Churchill in 1941), or in the street photography of Dianne Arbus who photographed unusual characters, or in the documentation of Vancouver cityscapes by Fred Herzog – the light with its commensurate shadow create emotion and demand engagement if not response. More intensely, the image of the Cross of Christ, whether the cross is empty, or a crucifix where the suffering Christ is held high (so common in the global south) the image is startling – darkness and light, good and evil, loss and gain, together. So how does one live in and through such experiences? It’s not easy.

Let us light a candle in the darkness,
In the face of death, a sign of life.
As a sign of hope where all seems hopeless,
As a sign of peace in place of strife.

I first heard the proverb: It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness as I watched the movie Schindler’s List some years ago. Now it seems to pop up everywhere – in underground shelters in Ukraine, or at right-to-life marches in the US – injustice seems so prevalent in a communication-rich world; we all need inspiration and motivation for both resistance and resilience. For Dean Robert, in the facing of death, and in the refusal to simply accept things as they are (“it is what it is” seem all too common a refrain these days) the idea of a voice, a single voice, a small voice, a voice allied with Truth draws strength from the story of Christ Crucified, dead and buried. And lest we forget: Christ is risen; He is risen indeed. Alleluia.”

There is Good News in this text from such a fine teacher, writer, musician and mentor. Now living away from Canterbury, he has shown up recently at St. Bart’s in New York City, announcing that he and Fletcher have retired to Wales AND that they may resume broadcasting, not daily, but possibly monthly. (If anyone has more information please comment.) The music by the late Richard Shephard, a personal friend of the Dean’s is accessible to all – and what a delight to hear it in worship at my local Cathedral a few weeks ago). In late Pentecost, during Advent, throughout Holy Week or frankly at any time, this hymns encourages me and hopefully delights you also. Blessings to all this Advent Season. Keep singing!

For the light is stronger than the darkness
And the day will overcome the night.
Though the shadows linger all around us,
Let us turn our faces to the light.

*Several people are associated with this proverbial saying, notably John F. Kennedy. It was brought to the public’s attention by Peter Benenson, the English lawyer and founder of Amnesty International, at a Human Rights Day ceremony on 10th December 1961. The candle circled by barbed wire has since become the society’s emblem.

Darkness has long been a metaphor for ignorance or evil. The Bible contains hundreds of references to darkness, referring either to the period of ignorance before the realization of faith (that is, prior to ‘seeing the light’), death, or to the Devil (The Prince of Darkness); for example, in Romans 13:

    13:11 And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.

    13:12 The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.

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