Christians of the Twilight
(Readings: 2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-23; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21)
Introduction to Mass
John's gospel uses the image of light and darkness to point up the choice we have to make between faith and unbelief, between truth and lies, between love and self-centredness - not only in our individual lives, but in the values and attitudes that are held in common, in the community at large.
As we prepare to celebrate Mass this Sunday we call to mind the times when we've turned away from the light and preferred the darkness instead, and we ask God for his forgiveness.
The imagery of the contrast between light and darkness is a recurring feature of John's gospel. John described Jesus' appearance in the history of the world as the coming of God's light into the darkness of human affairs.
Elsewhere in the Bible "the world" is a positive thing: it was made by God and reflects God's creative power. But for John "the world" means human beings living without reference to God: they're living in darkness and rejecting the light. John talks about the darkness as a way of summing up the net weight, as it were, of human ignorance and evil and lies. Whereas standing in the light, or walking in the light, means opting for truth, and love, and faith in God.
The conflict between light and darkness that John talks about takes place on different levels. On one level it takes place in the conscience of every individual person.
Men and women who've gone through a conversion - not necessarily a religious conversion as such, but any realisation that they're going in the wrong direction followed by a decision to turn their lives around - very often describe their experience as seeing the light, or a "dawning" of the truth. They begin to feel a strong obligation to cultivate integrity and all the wholesome qualities of character.
But it also happens the other way: sometimes people who start out as considerate and compassionate characters override their conscience and force themselves to act against their better instincts because the right moral values don't necessarily generate any rewards.
It might be because they're ambitious or because they want to make plenty of money - or it could be something like bearing a grudge or pursuing a vendetta - but the result is that they allow selfish motives to corrupt their character and, in John's language, they fall into darkness. Our increasingly ruthless and aggressive “enterprise culture”, for example, drives the qualities of kindliness and selflessness out of our relationships.
So it's part of the message of John's gospel that nobody's life, morally and spiritually, is static: we're always confronted with the choice of either moving into greater light, or of sliding back into the dark. The one thing we don't do is stay still.
That brings us to the second level where this contrast between spiritual light and darkness is present, because it's not just individuals who have to choose between the two. Whole communities and societies also have a moral character or a moral atmosphere. Goodness and evil aren't just individual qualities, they also have a communal or a corporate aspect, and actually that's more what John is concerned about.
Although the light has come into the world, he says, "men have shown they prefer darkness to the light, because their deeds were evil". It's human beings collectively rather than individual men and women who have rejected Christ's message.
Bernard Haring, the Redemptorist moral theologian, used to tell a story about two religious communities that he had lived in. In one of them the members were friendly and helpful and made a big effort to create an atmosphere of mutual support and forbearance. There was an attempt to foster an environment that brought out all the positive elements in human nature and the individual person's efforts to grow closer to God were supported by the atmosphere in the community as a whole.
But in the other house, for some reason, there was a lot of bitterness and rivalry and competition. There was an atmosphere of antagonism and people were always trying to get one over on each other, and living in that atmosphere had a very destructive effect on the individuals living there. The communal atmosphere - the way certain unhealthy attitudes and types of moral viciousness were embodied in the whole community's outlook and behaviour - had an adverse effect on the individual.
And it's mainly that sort of corporate evil, or solidarity in sin that John's gospel is referring to when it talks about the sin of the world and the world's rejection of the light. As Christians we have to help create a wholesome moral atmosphere in the communities that we belong to, and we have to try and resist the tendencies that produce a vicious and unloving environment.
Last of all, on a third level, there's a kind of darkness or blindness that can affect the whole of society.
About four centuries after the time of Christ, the parts of the world covered by the Roman Empire started to fall apart. Politicians and businessmen were corrupt. The rich turned their backs on the poor. Violent crime became more commonplace. The notions of justice and punishment grew more cruel and savage, because they were dictated by the instinct for revenge and retaliation rather than any principle of fairness or fair play.
Greed and a breakdown of trust and solidarity had a kind of snowballing affect: the more people felt that the structures of civilised society were collapsing, the more they retreated into a mentality of personal survival and every man for himself. Historians called it the Dark Ages.
To me, those trends have a very modern ring to them. As Christians today we can feel that we're being pulled in two directions or that we live in two worlds: the gospel tells us one thing about how to live our lives, and about our relationships and our moral standards and ideals, but the chat shows and the tabloids and the politicians and the celebrities tell us something very different.
Back in the fifth century there was one thing which stood, for the most part, above the confusion and the violence and the sleaze of the Dark Ages, and that was the Christian community, the Church.
It wasn't that everyone in the Church was a saint, but in the face of all the cruelty and greed and decadence the best of the Christian communities lived out their faith in a God whose nature was love and trust and respect and compassion.
The Christians' ideas about social justice were centuries ahead of their time. They denounced violently the exploitation of the poor by tribal princes and local barons, they founded schools and hospitals everywhere and the cathedrals and monasteries fed and protected millions of homeless refugees and beggars.
One historian called them the Christians of the Twilight - their light shone when everything else was in darkness. You don't need to have a particularly vivid imagination, I think, to see the comparison with our situation today. In our circumstances now we are also Christians of the Twilight.
Light, for us, means living in communion with Christ: everything else proceeds from that. If we've got any task as a minority whose values and attitudes are fundamentally at odds with the values and attitudes of the surrounding society, it's to allow Christ to work in us and through us, so that when we act and speak, it's Christ who's acting and speaking.
It's only if our minds and consciences and wills are filled with Christ that we'll be able to make the light of Christ's revelation shine in the twilight and the gathering darkness of our own time.