On Saturday (the Feast of the Holy Innocents), I spent an hour in my boyhood parish, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Although the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania is in dark decline, my old parish was lit up as I remembered it fifty years ago. Tiny white lights sparkled on fir trees scattered about the sanctuary; a large star hung over the manger scene, with Mama, Papa, and Baby amongst ox and ass, sheep and birds, hay and pinecones. Red and green holly lined every corner, twinkling with embedded Christmas lights. Two large wreathes hung above the altar, also strung with lights, whose electrical cords swung lamely from their fresh pine branches. These lights thrilled my heart, but then I thought again, “How childish!” Isn’t reality hard and dark, like the communists and the atheists tell us?
Twenty years ago I flew into Vladivostok at early dawn (we supported a sister parish in that former Soviet utopia). What one saw from 2000 feet, as the plane approached the old military airfield, was nothing but grey shapelessness. The city’s horizon was defined by rows of sadly dilapidated 15-storey apartment buildings and smoldering factory stacks. There were no spires or domes or any inspired architecture. There were no lights or anything to capture a child’s imagination. Soviet atheism looked as empty as it had proved to be.
It is good to delight in Christmas lights. These lights do not lie. They manifest, rather, a truth that often eludes sophisticated thinking: that a Child is born for us, and a Son is given us. He is the Light of the World, the Prince of Peace, the God-Hero, and Father Forever. Within our darkest nights, and beneath the filth of our blackened cities, burns a Light. This Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.