How desparately we long for hope.
And when it seems impossible to believe that hope can be fulfilled we often end up mocking the attempts people make to dispel the darkness. Despair is a terrible place to live, and a difficult place to leave, particularly when we have heard it all before. I was reminded of the Lonfellow poem, tuned into the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It happened in a very moving sermon by the pastor of the congregation I call home (Rev. Harry Dow).
The texts for the day are, of course, familiar ones. Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14. Isaiah begins with the familiar words, “People who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Darkness. Before the light. No light will seem great, or even be recognized until darkess has overtaken the scene. Darkness doesn’t change what is present; it obscures what is there already. It hides from our view those things which are within our reach, things that are capable of bringing us aid, yet go unused and unappreciated because we either couldn’t see them at all or because we took them for something other than what they are.
Wadsowrth’s poem was written in a time of darkness. Sure, the sun came up on schedule each day, yet darkness prevailed in the minds and experiences of so many people who could not see things for what they were. It was 1863, with a nation torn in the midst of a war with itself. There was no peace on earth to match the words that accompanied the announcement of Christ’s coming. Truth be told, it has ever been thus at many points in the world and its history; it has ever been thus in the experiences of communities, of individual persons, in households, in workplaces, even in congregations. There is no peace in Congress, nor in Syria, Egypt, or Connecticut. It’s really dark, and some people even despair of walking any further.
“Then peeled the bells more loud and deep; God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.” Buried within the triumpant final stanza of Wadsworth’s hymn is the entertaining of the idea that God has died, or is in fact asleep, indifferent to what is happening around us. It’s an easy conclusion at which to arrive–if we have not taken the time or the effort to know Him and His way of working in this world. When light arrives upon a dark scene, it is not the light that we look at, at least not directly. It is the light that allows us to see everything else, as C. S. Lewis put it so well. It is only by the light that we can detect and identify evil as evil, and thereby be assured that it is the intruder, not the norm for our world, our lives, our futures. Without the light that lightens every person, we would be left to conclude that sickness, poverty, pain, despair, and hopelessness are the way things are and are likely to be. Without the light shining into the corners we would not know ourselves as we are, or more importantly, as we should be and in fact can be, provided we turn ever more consistently toward the light that brings us life.
I know too many people living in despair. Some of them know the light is there, but a shade has been drawn temporarily across their view of the world, and it is darker than ever because their eyes had once become accustomed to the light now obscured. I pray for them and all who never saw the light before, that the wrong shall fail and the right prevail and God’s peace may come upon them anew.