Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.
It’s not too soon to be grateful that days are already lengthening little by little. Even amid the cloudy days of winter we can sense light returning. The morning light appears a little earlier, the afternoon sun stays just a bit longer, and some primal instinct tells us the earth is slowly awakening. The liturgical calendar plants us in the season of Epiphany and gives us themes of light, beginning with the Magi following the light of a star, and ending two months from now with Jesus’ Transfiguration (celebrated on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday), when the “Light of the world” gave his followers a glimpse of his divine nature, becoming a radiant, light-filled sign of God’s presence while conversing with Moses and Elijah on a mountain.
Light implies movement as well as brightness, moving through time with the speed of light, and when we are light-hearted and light on our feet it suggests buoyancy. Then, too, light is integral to perceptions of color, including defining people as light-skinned. I took some liberty, incidentally, this past Sunday with the beautiful motet of Peter Warlock, Bethlehem Down. Its gorgeous text refers to Mary’s “white arms,” but we corrected that likely historical inaccuracy to sing about her “warm” arms instead.
But I digress! The Song of Simeon, a canticle taken from the Gospel of Luke which is sung or read as part of the evening office, takes us back to the light of sun and stars. These are the grateful words of an old man upon seeing the infant Jesus and understanding what he holds in his arms:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Three ways to be illuminated by Simeon’s words:
Artistically, the ability to capture light, as seen in this 18th century depiction by Aert de Gelder of Simeon with Mary and Jesus, is often considered the mark of a great painter.
It is more difficult to capture light in sound. Composers might find it in shimmering string sounds, or the clarity of straight-toned high voices, but often a text has to do some of the work. The final line of Simeon’s prayer – a light to lighten the Gentiles – has inspired many, many composers to soar in musical arcs of light. In honor of this week’s celebration of Christmas by the Orthodox Church…Rachmaninoff’s setting of Simeon’s words in the Nunc Dimities from his Vespers:
And finally, Simeon’s story takes poetic flight in T. S. Eliot’s A Song for Simeon: “my life is light,” Eliot writes here.
We can find beauty in any artistic expression of Simeon’s cry, a light to lighten the Gentiles, but sometimes life is more shadow than light and it is those times when we can hold on to Tagore’s words above, believing that light is possible even before it appears.
Ultimately the greatest beauty is found in our own ability to embody light, to be radiant, buoyant expressions of love moving through this world.
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.
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