We moderns routinely hear Biblical metaphors like “Light of the World” and “True Light of every man”. While we might appreciate their poetic value, I think much of their meaning is lost to us because in our day, light is cheap. The introduction of widespread artificial lighting through the 20th century marked a significant change in human civilization. Certainly there have always been some forms of artificial light, but they were cumbersome, relatively expensive, and nowhere near as efficient as electrical light. Thanks to electricity, we weren't bound by darkness any more – with the flick of a switch, we could have all the light we needed. This in turn “freed” us from the natural timetable of the days and seasons, and even nature herself. No longer were our working hours set by light from the sun. Even our architecture has come to reflect this independence from natural – and hence dependence upon artificial – lighting.
Because we take light for granted, admonitions like St. Peter's in 2 Peter 1:19 (“and you will be right to pay attention to [the message] as to a lamp for lighting a way through the dark, until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in your minds”) lose some of their impact. A people who have never walked in great darkness cannot appreciate the importance of a great light. We might apprehend it intellectually, and perhaps appreciate it poetically. But the instinctive import, the gut-level impact, will not reach a people who have all the light they wish literally at their fingertips.
But even artificial light has value in this framework. As the natural light is a metaphor for the truth of God's Revelation shedding light into the darkness of our sin and rebellion, artificial light could be understood as man trying to self-illuminate our condition by our own wisdom and efforts. For what have the last several centuries of Western civilization been but our attempts to determine our own destinies by theories and principles that we invented according to our own wisdom? We would turn from the natural moral “light” of Revelation so we can have “light” of our own making.
Why do this? Well, one reason might be something that man-made morality shares with man-made light: it functions at our discretion. Artificial light burns when, where, and to the degree we wish. If there's something we don't wish to look upon, we don't illuminate it; if there's something we wish to accentuate, we illuminate it more. In like manner, the morality of man can be very selective. We might decry treatment of a preferred minority, such as the residents of Darfur or AIDS victims, but inconvenient minorities such as the unborn or severely handicapped are tucked away in a dark corner.
Sunlight is indiscriminate – it illuminates everything, the pleasant and unpleasant alike. “Nothing is hidden from its burning heat” (Ps 19:6) There's no ignoring things illuminated by sunlight. I got a little lesson in this just today. I'm currently alone in the house, and since tidying up after the Thanksgiving weekend, the place seems fairly clean – or so it appeared just this morning by light of all the lamps. But when the morning sunlight shone through the east window, it starkly illuminated the dust and dirt on what had seemed to be a clean floor. What by artificial light had seemed acceptable, even laudable, was shown by natural light to be woefully inadequate.
Darkness is one of the themes of Advent. We need to be reminded of our selfishness and pride. While the world would have us raising toasts and celebrating bonhomie and good will, the Church urges us to confront the darkness of sin in the world and in our hearts. Let's dwell here a while. Let's resist the urge to turn on the “artificial light” of self-reassurance and self-consolation. Let's acknowledge what is wrong with us, that we too often allow darkness in our lives by only illuminating that which we wish to see. Let's face this darkness squarely, that we might will to accept the Light when He comes.
“In the tender compassion of our God, the Dawn from on High shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness, and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78,79)