As the new year begins I look back and I ask myself; “what has 2020 taught me?” It has shown me that life is precious and a great gift. The pandemic had taught me that what really matters is friendship and love and that we need each other because we are all part of one family. I missed the parish community being physically present when celebrating Mass. In April I remember venturing out a short distance and experiencing the shock of seeing the vivid greens of the trees and fields in the spring sunshine. I found more time to pray and listen and, when the church was open again in June, I felt the joy of people experiencing a time of quiet to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. I have marvelled at the ingenuity of our 9:30 music group in creating music that help us to worship even though we were not allowed to sing. As a priest, I have felt totally inadequate when faced with the sorrow of the bereaved, and when encountering the sadness of those who were prevented from being physically close to their loved ones who were ill. I continue to pray for those who experience fear and anxiety as they nurse and care for those who have Covid-19.
On this second Sunday of Christmas we hear again the opening of St John’s Gospel. When I hear the words:
“All that came to be had life in him
and that life was the light of men,
a light that shines in the dark,
a light that darkness could not overpower,”
I am reminded of one of my favourite painting in the National Gallery, The Nativity at Night. This is an Early Netherlandish painting of about 1490 by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. It is a panel painting in oil on oak. The painting shows the Nativity of Jesus, attended by angels, and with the Annunciation to the shepherds on the hillside behind seen through the window in the centre of the painting. What is striking is how it conveys the darkness of the night. The commentary that accompanies this painting says “The brilliant light in the foreground comes from the Christ Child in the crib. It illuminates the figure of the Virgin, who bends forward, hands joined in prayer, Saint Joseph in the background, and the figures of the delighted small angels to the left.” The idea of the infant Christ illuminating the Nativity scene comes from the writings of the 14th-century Saint Bridget of Sweden. She wrote that in her visions the light of the new-born child was so bright “that the sun was not comparable to it”.
Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness. He is our hope. Our sure and certain hope. As we make our way through this new year we are aware of the darkness that surrounds us. The darkness of the pandemic, darkness of peoples in many parts of the world being treated as slaves and commodities. We are aware of the darkness of self-centredness and greed that can seep into our own lives.
A figure that has been with me over this Christmas time has been Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. Shortly after he was made coadjutor archbishop of Saigon in 1975 he was arrested and imprisoned by the Communists because of his Catholic faith. After 13 years of imprisonment, nine of which were spent in solitary confinement, then Archbishop Thuan was released on the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lady. Soon after being taken into custody, Bishop Thuan was determined to persevere. He vowed to himself: “I am not going to wait. I will live each present moment, filling it to the brim with love.” He realised that he could continue to shepherd his people by adopting St. Paul’s strategy of writing pastoral letters from prison. He wrote a series of inspirational messages on the backs of calendar pages that were smuggled out and eventually published as a book, The Road of Hope. Pope Benedictine wrote his letter on Christian Hope, Spe Salvi, “During the thirteen years in jail, in a situation of seemly utter hopelessness, that fact that he (Cardinal Van Thuan) could listen and speak to God became for him an increasing power of hope, which enabled him, after his release, to become for people all over the world a witness to hope – to that great hope which does not wane even in the nights of solitude.”
I pray that in this new year we may, like Cardinal Van Thuan, reflect the light of Christ, the true Hope of the world.