Prayer for the week

by
24 January 2014

Anna Macham considers the divine encounter in darkness and light

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Almighty Father, whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world: may your people, illuminated by your word and sacraments, shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.

Common Worship
post-communion for the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany
 

THE archetypal symbol of light in the darkness, particularly from Advent, through Christmas, to the Epiphany season, has been part of the Christian tradition from the beginning.

The image from St John's Gospel of Jesus as light of the world, in particular, is so familiar that we rarely stop to consider its meaning. Light is closely connected with good news for all: the light of hope, set against the darkness of despair; the light of salvation, set against the darkness of death; the light of Christ, against the darkness of evil; and so on.

So firmly in our imaginations is God himself identified with light that the author of this prayer does not even need to state this fact; the focus is all on the Son, whose light reveals the Father to us.

Darkness, in contrast, hardly gets a mention. The dark as a metaphor has traditionally had a more limited frame of reference, functioning as the repository of all that is wicked and leads to death.

As the Scottish poet and nature-writer Kathleen Jamie puts it in her book Findings (Sort Of Books, 2005): "Our vocabulary ebbs with the daylight, closes down with the cones of our retinas."

Jamie is fascinated by the relationship between light and darkness. She reminds us that beyond the negative metaphorical meanings that poets and priests have put on to it, darkness itself is not evil, but good. "We are conceived and carried in the darkness, are we not?" she writes.

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But darkness has a more positive place in the Christian story than we might think. In one of my favourite Christmas carols, "In the bleak midwinter", conventional images of bright angels are only the backdrop to the dim warmth and intimacy of the stable, where the mother worships the child with a kiss.

The dusky stillness of winter, as much as the blazing light, heralds the arrival of God on earth. And as the Christmas season finally draws to a close at Candlemas, we will remember Simeon for being the one who identified Jesus as "the light to lighten the Gentiles"; although this revelation, too, is dependent on a lifetime of waiting in the obscurity of the Temple precincts.

While we associate epiphanies and mystical encounters with dazzling light, it is more often the accompanying darkness that illuminates and gives them meaning. The Eastern Church Father St Gregory of Nyssa wrote in his Life of Moses: "When, therefore, Moses grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in darkness, that is, that [Moses] had then come to know what is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension."

Meeting God face to face is as much a meeting in darkness as it is in light. To "shine with the radiance of [God's] glory" paradoxically involves reconciling ourselves to the dark, recognising it as God's gift to us, as well as the light.

The illumination that we might ask for in this prayer is the darkness through which we may come to see and know God's presence. This is a darkness that contains something of the watchful, expectant quality that Jamie describes.

It is not a place to be feared; but, like the "real, natural, starry dark" of a winter's evening, it is a place of comfort and safety, beauty and promise. Here, the light that illuminates the dark is not so much the harsh light of judgement as the single vulnerable light of a candle flame.

As it grows and joins other flames, it reveals the way forward, and slowly brings to light the truth about ourselves and our world.

The Revd Anna Macham is Priest-in-Charge of St Philip's, Camberwell, in south London.

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