Many years ago, my brother Jay was in Rome and found lodging in the bell tower of the monastery of Santa Sabina, the heart of the Dominican order. Out the tower window was ledge overlooking a spectacular view of the eternal city high up on the Aventine Hill. Late on a June night, Jay and his bell tower-mate, Paul, decided to drink a few beers, eat some pizza, and enjoy the summer sunset. “This view and setting is so amazing. The only thing we need now,” Jay said, “are some fireworks.” Not more than 10 minutes later Jay and Paul were dazzled with a firework display. Unbeknownst to them, it was June 24 and Romans were celebrating the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.
While not considered a major feast in the United States, St. John’s feast on June 24 is widely recognized in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Venezuela. Italians honor the great saint through light displays in several cities.
It is fitting homage at the height of summer when the days are at their longest for the saint who said, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). Each day thereafter ushers in the darkness leading up to Christ’s birth six months later, when the light returns at the winter solstice.
Light has long been a tangible metaphor for God. While not exclusively a Christian symbol, light is an idea that permeates the Christian tradition. St. Augustine and many other theologians, philosophers, and mystics would return again and again to this bright idea. Scholastics like Bishop Robert Grosseteste and St. Bonaventure emphasized that without out Christ, The Light, there is only moral darkness. St. Bonaventure wrote:
O indescribable beauty of the most high God and purest radiance of eternal light! Life that gives all life, light that is the source of every other light, preserving in everlasting splendor the myriad flames that have shone before the throne of your divinity from the dawn of time!
St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as mystics like St. Hildegard of Bingen, also emphasized the Godly importance of light. And for Dante, the paradise of his Divine Comedy was saturated with light:
And lo! All around me, equal in all its parts,
A splendor dawned above the splendor there
Like a horizon when the new day starts.
(Paradiso, 104, 67-9)
Even the architectural trends of the medieval period mimic this love of light. Gothic architecture cleared out the dark shadows, heavy columns, and narrow windows of the Romanesque style. In their absence, soaring ceilings and expansive windows let in more light than was ever dreamed possible. Abbot Suger, who commissioned the Church of St. Denis, explained: “If a church’s interior should be an image of heaven for the faithful, then entering the Church of Saint Denis meant entering a heaven of light and color and a radiant, eternal divine proportion.”
In our own day, we are used to banishing the darkness of night with the flip of a switch. It is easy to forget that most of the world has known great darkness when the sun goes down. Sadly, however, while electricity has lit up the world in ways previously unimaginable, a different sort of darkness has descended—also previously unimaginable. While this new darkness was not caused by artificial light, it gives one pause to think about what it lost when we no longer treasure the preciousness of a light in the darkness.
On his deathbed, G.K. Chesterton said boldly, “The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side.” These words ring ever more true for those of us living today as we see great darkness slowly, but perceptible descend over our country and the world. We are coming to a stage where no man can remain lukewarm, but must—as Chesterton suggested—choose a side. Let us pray with St. John and all the hosts of heaven that we may always choose the side of The Light of the Son.