The first reading for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (Is 9:1-6) is one of the prophet Isaiah’s most beautiful and consoling.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”
The juxtaposition of darkness and light is a common literary and biblical theme. In the very beginning of Genesis, God sees that there is “darkness over the abyss,” and by the third verse he proclaims, “Let there be light.”
“God is light,” 1 John 1:5 tells us, “and in him there is no darkness at all.”
In a purely physical sense, darkness is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, in the still of night when we most need rest, we embrace the darkness. Scientists tell us that our world suffers now from “light pollution.” Very few places on earth are totally free from the glow of artificial light in the nighttime.
But we welcome darkness only because we trust that light is coming. We are confident of the dawn; eager, if we rest well, for the sunrise. In Genesis, God separates the night from the day, as if to give meaning to each by its co-dependence on the other.
In Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” the author imagines the life of a blind French girl during World War II. Her inability to see light physically does nothing to diminish the enlightenment of her soul.
But the darkness of which Isaiah speaks is an entirely different kind of blackness than the restfulness of night or a physical inability to see. Isaiah’s darkness calls to mind the darkness that can envelop one in the depths of depression — “the land of gloom,” Isaiah terms it.
It is a darkness that has swallowed hope, a darkness where one has forgotten the sun’s promise to rise. Walking in darkness is a terrifying metaphor. Imagine traveling over unknown terrain in total blackness, unsure of where your foot might land next.
There are moments in every human life when we are enshrouded by this kind of darkness. Perhaps that’s why Isaiah’s Christmas reading is so powerfully inspiring and so conducive to quiet prayer.
As Isaiah tells us of the great light that shines in this terrifying, gloomy darkness, he becomes almost ebullient with excitement and hope. Note his descriptions of our coming salvation: “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”
His words take on the cadence of finest poetry as he offers us abundant hope: “Every boot that tramped in battle, every cloak rolled in blood, will be burned as fuel for fire.”
These are words of enormous promise. These are the words we breathe in, we shout, we proclaim as we experience the great light of Christ.
“For a child is born to us,” Isaiah exults, “a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests.”
Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.