The Lord is my light

Essential light

All we have to do is shut our eyes in order to realise that it is difficult to overstate the importance of light.  It is the first thing God creates (Genesis 1), because without it, how could anything else happen, or be seen to happen?  As it says in Psalm 36/37, ‘In your light, we see light’.   God creates light first of all things, and then later the sun and the moon, because that is how he creates time for us to occupy.

God creating earth
Creating the light, the planets and the world in the middle
Jesus the Light of the world

Christian imagery is full of light.  Everybody knows ‘Shine, Jesus, shine’ even if it isn’t their favourite hymn, and there are lots of others (Walk in the light, Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, Morning has broken, Lead, kindly Light… and I haven’t even reached for a hymn book yet).  Particularly in St John’s Gospel, Jesus is identified with light. He is the light of the world, the true light which enlightens everyone (John 1). When he speaks, he calls himself the light, repeatedly. It seems like an obvious image, especially to dwellers of the northern hemisphere, but in this, as so often, Jesus is actually being quite novel, and making a huge claim.  The word light is not used so freely in the Old Testament.  God is more often (in) a cloud, or a pillar of cloud, a fire or a fortress; he is a giver of shade (Ps. 120/121), sometimes protection from the sun, but mostly as a way of keeping someone in danger concealed from his enemies.

Light-radiating baby Nativity
Light-radiating baby (Reni)
Picturing light
Two light sources, one focussed, one radiating

It is always worth spending time working out where the light in a painting is coming from, and in pictures of the Nativity it is often coming from the baby, to reinforce the image.   These are topical as well as gorgeous, so I have scattered them through my text.

In Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, the adult Jesus is holding a lantern, but the light is also coming from the halo around his head.  In the account of the Transfiguration, Jesus is too bright to look at, his clothes more dazzling than any laundry could make them (Mark 9).  He has become a being of pure light, but when God speaks a few minutes later, he speaks from a cloud which overshadows the apostles.  Just like in John’s vision of the kingdom to come, there is ‘no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb’ (Rev 21.23).

Radiance beams from thy holy face…
Light in the Psalms

The psalms talk so often about ‘the light of your face’ that this is clearly an idiom, similarly ‘the light of the living’, ‘the light of my eyes’; but the emphasis in the psalms is more on the contrast between night and day, darkness and light, God stepping in to rescue the sufferer from peril or darkness.  God is described as ‘my light’ far less often than he is addressed as ‘my strength, ‘my song’, ‘my fortress’.   I wonder if this is partly a result of when the words were written.  The psalms date back a very long way,  we don’t even know how far;   but certainly to nomad times, when light was rare and precious,  and mostly you went to bed as soon as you couldn’t see any more.   The Gospels date from a later time of settlement, when people were (mostly) living in little towns or great cities, and candles and lamps were less unusual.  Jesus can call himself the light of the world because light is something we all grasp the benefit of, as well as something everyday.  You would not want your Saviour to be steak or caviar; you need him to be bread.  ‘He makes the blind see’ would not mean anything if everyone were blind and no one understood the joy of sight.

Darkness: absence of light, absence of God
a wonderfully dynamic God separating the light from the darkness (Sistine Chapel)

Darkness can indeed mean in itself the absence of God (see the psalm of despair Ps 87/88), but it’s also a practical problem for the psalmist because he is worried that God will not be able to see him or know where he is so as to rescue him (one of Job’s comforters also talks about this, Job 22.13). Job himself is afraid of the darkness (23.16), but does not make the mistake of thinking that God cannot see through it.).  One feature of God which impresses the psalmist is that he can see to do things even in dark places (‘You knit me together in my mother’s womb’ ,  ‘You know when I wake and when I lie down’ Ps 138/139).  God can use the darkness to conceal himself (‘I answered, concealed in the storm cloud’, Ps 80/81).  What the psalmist fears is the dark valley in Psalm 22/23.  Darkness is scary and threatening, but God controls the darkness, and this means that God’s faithful child does not need to be scared even in the dark (‘I lie down at night, and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety’ Ps 4). ‘You, O Lord, are my lamp, my God who lightens my darkness’ (Ps 17/18).

More of a luminous baby this time (Le Nain)
The One who lights my lamp

God gives light to the psalmist, sometimes real, sometimes metaphorical.  ‘Your word is a lamp for my steps and a light for my path’, sings the author of the longest psalm, which is all about the Law, 118/119.  God is regularly described as ‘shining forth’, which again I think must be an idiom (Pss 50/51, 75/76, 79/80, 96/97), but many of the psalms describe a need for real light, not metaphorical, and long for morning to come.  God will help at the dawning of the day (Ps 45/46).  Joy comes with the morning (Ps 30/31).  God is even better than the coming of dawn:  ‘Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord’ (Ps 129/130).

Musical light

Haydn’s stunning portrayal of light in The Creation is probably the best-known, because it is so effective.   What does he do?  He shows us darkness and chaos with deep rumblings of the orchestra, masterfully portraying disorder and formlessness by an artful use of perhaps the most formal of the arts.  He keeps the sound gentle and hesitant, almost groping.  And then light is created; we have a huge major chord which just keeps reverberating.  The pitch goes up, everything is bright and noisy.  I’ve added that particular link because it’s in rehearsal, so you can see very clearly how the tension is all in the music, not in the occasion, or the dress, or anything else.  So exciting.

You can’t do that every time the word ‘light’ is mentioned in a psalm, but I have noticed that I tend to place it on an upper note comparatively and give it some stress (I think this must be the musical equivalent of not putting your light under a bushel).  It helps that it’s a strong, monosyllabic word (in both German and English).   And where there is light in a psalm, the music tends to be major rather than modal or minor; it just feels right.

The light shines in the darkness

We are in the dark part of the year at the moment, in the northern hemisphere, and Christmas is a feast of light-in-darkness.  (So is Hannukah, which happens at a similar time, and Jesus would have celebrated it.)  The next few Christian celebrations after Christmas are different ‘epiphanies’, ‘showings-forth’, ‘shinings-forth’: Epiphany itself, and then Candlemas, which used to be seen as the last feast of the Christmas season, when the baby Jesus is taken to the Temple and Simeon greets him as’a light for revelation to the Gentiles’.  This is the fulfilment of the prophecies of Isaiah.  ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light’; here he is, and the darkness is over.

Lovely early spiky-light baby (Monaco)

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Immaculate Conception and misconceptions

The Immaculate Conception of which baby?

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is the last Mary feast of the year, or the first one of the Church’s year, if you think of Advent as the start of it, which of course we do.   These celebrations of stages in Mary’s life parcel the year out between them, trying to show the natural rhythm of conception and birth, but they can also lead to misunderstandings,  because the feasts have difficult names and some people get genuinely confused about what’s happening, and to whom, and when.  The Immaculate Conception is not the Virgin Birth.  The first is of Mary, the second is of Jesus.

Creating the liturgy

And the Church has to find readings for them all in a text which manages to leave the Mother of God totally offstage most of the time (and doesn’t feature many other women either in a starring role, though of course we know that there must have been lots of them around all the time, holding up half the sky).  There are some great female forerunners in the Old Testament, but we don’t use their stories, which is a pity, as Mary would have known them well.

Mary feasts and Jesus feasts

With apologies to those for whom this is obvious, you can divide the Mary feasts into those about Jesus and those about Mary.

Annunciation : the angel comes to tell Mary about Jesus

The Annunciation is the feast of the conception of Jesus, with  Christmas exactly nine months later as the feast of the birth of Jesus.  The Immaculate Conception is the feast of the conception of Mary (followed exactly nine months later by Our Lady’s birthday).  The Assumption is the feast of the death of Mary (neat Churchly chiasmus there).  All the other feasts happen in between, depending (for Mary) on her various titles (Mary the Mother of God, Our Lady of Guadalupe, of Fatima etc) or (for Jesus) on various events as they unfold (the Presentation in the Temple, the Transfiguration, the Passion, the Resurrection).

The Immaculate Conception
Immaculate Conception : angel comes to tell Joachim about Mary

So we are about to celebrate the Immaculate Conception at the beginning of December : this is the conception of Mary herself, the only person since Adam and Eve to have been born without Original Sin, so that she could be a suitable mother for Jesus.  I’m not going to discuss the theology of this, for various reasons;  I’m just looking at the readings set for the feast.  This is conceptually (sorry) the first Mary feast, because it has to predate eveything else, and it does come early in the Church’s year.  It’s just unfortunate that it happens near the end of the calendar year and Christmas itself, which probably adds to the confusion.

Readings for the Mass

I can’t help thinking that some of the unclarity over the Immaculate Conception is caused by the choice of the Annunciation as the Gospel for the day.  Yes, of course it’s the pivotal moment when Mary says yes to God’s plan of redemption, but we are supposed to be celebrating her own conception (by a chaste kiss between Joachim and Anna, according to some of the Church fathers) and the fact that it’s totally different from everyone else’s, although she’s supposed to represent the human race working together with God.

Joachim and Anna cuddling the toddler Mary (Chora)
Only a small group to choose from

But there’s actually not much choice if you are looking for Mary readings.  There is no reference to the Immaculate Conception in the gospels.  Appearances of Mary are limited to the Annunciation, the Visitation (with Magnificat), the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, looking for Jesus after he’s been left behind in Jerusalem, the wedding at Cana, the offstage scene where Jesus gets a message that his mother and brothers are outside (and he stays where he is), the Crucifixion, and Pentecost (she is present, although there is no further reference to her).  That’s it.  And most of the time, she is present but silent; she speaks only four times, according to the record in the Gospels.  Our one lengthy piece of Mary-speech is kept as a reading for the Feast of the Assumption, though we are allowed to use it every day in Evening Prayer.  It is turned into a Responsorial psalm for the third Sunday of Advent in Year B.  I’ve talked about the Magnificat before, as a piece of (rare) female speech in the Bible.  I wish we used it more on Sundays.

First Reading : the Fall, Eve’s fault
Adam and Eve with serpent
Legs still there (for now)

So choosing the readings for the Immaculate Conception was always going to be difficult.  We start with the reading where God calls to Adam who has just eaten the apple and is hiding.  If you look this up, ‘the man and his wife’ hear God in the garden and ‘they’ hide, so Eve is definitely there.   But God calls to the man, asks Adam whether he has been eating the forbidden fruit and Adam says ‘It was the woman you put with me; she gave me the fruit and I ate it.’  Then God asks the woman, and she says ,’The serpent tempted me and I ate.’  God curses the serpent and prophesies enmity between the woman and the serpent and their descendants.   The reading ends abruptly with a short sentence explaining that the man then names the woman ‘Eve’ (derived from the Hebrew word ‘to live’) because she was the mother of all the living.  That last sentence comes a good five verses later in the chapter, and comes after God’s further words to the erring couple, which are left out.  How do we respond to this with the psalm?

Responsorial Psalm 97/98 yet again

We go back to our trusty psalm 97/98, which we have been singing repeatedly recently, and which we will sing again on Christmas Day, in exactly the same version as here, but with an extra four lines.  We positively celebrate the events of the first reading because God has brought salvation even out of such disaster (this is the felix culpa mentioned in the Easter Exsultet : ‘O happy fault which won for us so great a Redeemer’).  It’s a great joyful psalm, which encourages everyone to sing (always a good move), enumerates God’s mercies and ends by encouraging everyone to sing all over again.

After the psalm, the second reading (Ephesians 1) is a beautiful poem which again emphasizes God’s ‘pretermined plan’ which he had organised from the beginning, but as it’s St Paul, it’s all very male-oriented language, and despite the references to being chosen ‘from the beginning’, it doesn’t really seem to refer to Our Lady much.

Back on course with the Alleluia

You realise that we have strayed from the path when the Alleluia verse, the first line of the Hail Mary, almost comes as a surprise.  And some of the force of it is lost when the identical verse is translated differently in the Gospel (‘Rejoice, so highly favoured!’).  If you want echoes to reinforce the message of the readings, surely it would help if they sounded the same note.  The Gospel, as I said,  is the account of the Annunciation, exactly the same reading as set for the Annunciation feast itself.  This does contribute to the confusion, but it’s hard to think of a better Gospel reading except the Visitation (because then we’d get the Magnificat), and that would not actually cause any less confusion, because yet another baby (John the Baptist) would be in the picture.

two women, two special babies; but who is the Immaculate Conception?
Alternatives to the Gospel?

Luckily for me, both the bits I have to set to music are ones I feel happy with.  We have different versions of this psalm at various stages in the year, and it’s always a pleasure to set because it is so joyful.  The psalm and the Alleluia are celebrations of God’s plan and Our Lady’s part in it.  I can think of alternatives for the two readings, but for the Gospel I think it has to be the Annunciation because Christmas is coming round the corner,  Mary’s other sublime moment when she is the agent of God.  We can’t use the Nativity readings;  everything in Advent is building towards the event of Christmas night.  The focus is on the point of shifting from who Mary has been till now (Immaculate Conception, tribe of David, betrothed of Joseph, cousin of Elizabeth), to what she is about to do.  She is about to become the mother of God-with-us, who will be born only because she said yes when God asked the question.  The saying yes and following through are what make Mary the Queen of Heaven.  We are thanking God for her on this feast.

crib scene in illuminated capital
Sing choirs of angels….and everyone else too