There are people in the world who hate the light. They moan about the light, throw their hands up in the air and shake their heads about it. They dodge it whenever they can, preferring to skitter around in the darkness, even if that means an occasional bump on the shins. They’ll tell anyone they meet about their loathing of the light, about how the light is the enemy, how the light ruins everything. They’ll pick themselves up and move far away, deeper into the forest or further out into the desert just to try and escape that ever-present, always disappointing, perpetually troublesome light.
Now these people are not mole people. They’re not cave dwellers or orcs or goths. They’re not particularly maudlin or pessimistic. These people are astronomers, amateur astronomers to be exact, astronomers who don’t have access to giant telescopes in an observatory somewhere in the middle of the deepest, blackest wilderness. These are the astronomers who are using their own telescopes, slogging them out into their own backyards, using their own two arms to swing a galaxy or nebula into view, and struggling every night against the light. Porch lights, street lights, automatic motion-detecting lights, lights from cars, lights from airplanes, and most of all – worst of all, the greatest culprit of all – lights from cities, the soft, nearly unnoticeable glow that hovers just over the horizon, turning the sky from a sacred, heavenly blackest black to a muddy, reddish brown. Light is all around, and when you are trying to pinpoint one beam of it streaming down from far, far away at 299,792,458 meters per second, ambient light is the enemy. When you’re trying to see starlight, the blacker the viewfinder, the better.
I experienced this in person over Thanksgiving when I was visiting my husband’s family in North Carolina. My father-in-law is one of those brilliant amateur astronomers. He and my mother-in-law live in a small town, very purposefully, so that while the light from the nearest city can sometimes be a bother, it doesn’t make nighttime viewing impossible. When we were there in November, we went out every night, and every night my father-in-law went through the same routine – he would haul out the telescope and set up a table for all of his different eyepieces, and then he would make sure that all of the lights on the back of the house were turned off. We were in as dark an environment as we could possibly muster.
Or so I thought. But there was one more level of darkness, a deeper kind of black that my father-in-law explained to me on our first night in the backyard. Once, when I stood up from gazing into the telescope, he told me to close my viewing eye, even to put my hand over the lid, while he changed out the eyepiece. By doing so, I was keeping my pupil dilated as much as possible. Instead of opening my eye between viewings, and letting that pernicious light from the next town over or the neighbor’s front porch run right into my retina, I was keeping my eye primed and ready, so that when I looked back into the eyepiece, my eye could take it all in right away. I was keeping my eye in the dark so that it could see all of the light the eyepiece had to offer – the tiniest pair of twin stars, the fuzziest blot of a nebula, the subtlest shade of red that colored a particular planet. By keeping my eye in the dark, I found that I could see much, much more.
Now, I would imagine that the wise men didn’t have to worry too much about light pollution. One would think that if you wanted to find the dark in the first-century, the dark would be fairly easy to find. But for the magi, using only their own two eyes to view the workings of the heavens, finding that true darkness was still important. They were astronomers, after all – darkness was mother’s milk to them, darkness was gift and blessing. I can see them now, standing in their own backyard, going through their own nighttime routine – they’d set up the table for the astrolabe and the quadrant, and then carefully extinguish the candles in the windows, close the back door to keep the firelight inside, and ask the gardener for the thousandth time to please, please, for the love of all that is holy could he please put out the garden lamps for just a couple of minutes. I’m sure they would sigh when the lights from the heart of Babylon lit up the night too brightly. And who knows what they thought when they neared the city of Jerusalem? All of this light! Cover your eye, Caspar, use your hand, keep your eye in the blessed, blessed dark.
And because they did keep their eyes in the blessed, blessed dark, they were able to truly see. They saw this new light, this strange wild star, that didn’t do what it was supposed to do, that didn’t go where it was supposed to go, that wasn’t tethered to any map that the magi knew.* They kept their eyes in the dark so that their pupils were as wide open as possible, fully able to take in what the night sky had to offer them. They kept their eyes in the dark so that they could be ready to see the miracle right in front of them.
Now, if you had asked the wise men all those centuries ago if they were haters of the light, I’m sure they would have said no. Astronomers aren’t haters of the light, they would have protested. Astronomers love the light. We love the light so much we spend hours looking for light we can barely find. We spend a lifetime watching the light moving towards us from a thousand suns that died a thousand lifetimes ago. We love the light – we name it, record it, honor and celebrate it. We love the light – it’s just that we know which light to love. We know which light to look for, which light to revere. We look for the light that is coming into the world, the light that shines into the darkness and will not be overcome. We look for the light that marks the place where God’s heart lies, where God takes on hands and feet and curly brown hair so that we can know and feel how carefully each of the hairs of our own heads is counted. We look for the light that shows the glory of the Lord, born in a manger. This is the light that draws us here. This is the light that makes us kings stream from far-away nations to lay gifts at the feet of a poor child. This is the light that puts all other lights to shame. The lights of Babylon or Jerusalem or the gardener’s burning lamps are fine, but we have sought the true light, and we will do all we can to keep our eyes ready to see the continuing miracle of that one, true light.
I don’t know about you, but I want to look for the light like this. I want to seek this one, true light. I want to see it at its rising, I want to follow it on its journey, I want to see where it stops over the incarnate Word and be overwhelmed with the joy of the magi. I want to have ready eyes to see the coming of Christ in the world. But so many times my eyes are distracted by other lights. You know the lights I mean – buy this thing and you’ll be happy, pray this way and you’ll be rewarded, just keep moving and eventually you’ll find peace. We can so easily find ourselves blinded by lights we aren’t really looking for, our pupils turned to pinpricks by the dazzling rays of other, less holy desires. And it is hard to see the gift of the one, true, long-looked-for light when our eyes are not quite ready.
But tonight we celebrate the true gift of these wonderful, wise men – that they were also wonderful, wise astronomers. And they knew that when you are looking for the true light, you need to just close your eye first. Close your eye. Cover it with your hand. Get your vision ready. Go into your closet and shut the door, and let your eye adjust to the sacred darkness. Close your eye first; be still, and let all of those other lights fade away. Close your eye and be ready. Come here to this quiet, dark place, where we have our own nightly routine – where we set a table with a plate and a cup and all of the tools we will need, and still our hearts and ready our eyes to see the light that is shining into the world. You can leave one eye open so that you don’t bump your shins too often, but come here with one eye shut, primed and ready to find that light the moment it comes into view. Let the windows of your soul open up wide to let that light, the true light of Jesus Christ, with all the true joy and true prosperity and true peace that he brings, shine into your heart. Close your eye and be ready. And then arise, shine, you holy astronomers, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
The Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia
*Some of this language is borrowed from/influenced by the Godly Play stories for Advent.