The Gift of Light
Service reflecting on the Biblical imagery of light. From St Patrick's Church, Donegall Street in Belfast. Led by Father Eugene O'Neill.
From the first chapter of Genesis when God said "Let there be light", the word light occurs and recurs throughout the Bible where it is often contrasted with darkness. The service explores the rich imagery of light and how this may direct our thinking and our living.
From St Patrick's Church, Donegall Street in Belfast.
Led by Father Eugene O'Neill Preacher: Father Michael McGinnity
With Cappella Caeciliana, directed by Donal McCrisken.
Be thou my vision (Irish traditional)
O radiant dawn (MacMillan)
Lead kindly light (Sandon)
Thou knowest Lord (Purcell)
O Nata Lux de Lumine (Tallis)
Love divine (Hyfrydol)
Organist: Stephen Hamill.
Script of Worship from St Patrick’s Church, Donegall Street
This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.
It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world,
Opening Announcement: BBC Radio 4. It’s ten past eight and time for Sunday Worship which this morning comes from Belfast and reflects on the Biblical imagery of Light. The preacher is Father Michael McGinnity and the service is introduced by Father Eugene O’Neill.
FATHER EUGENE O’NEILL Good morning and welcome to St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Donegall Street in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.
Standing in the heart of the 18th Century merchant district, St Patrick’s is the second church on this site; and our Georgian Presbytery the oldest continuously inhabited house in the city. We serve a large urban parish, a congregation from throughout the city and a growing university population.
The scars of dereliction and the Troubles are disappearing as huge investment is poured into the new campus of Ulster University, transforming the landscape around us and creating a futuristic backdrop to our splendid, Victorian Church.
Our 200 foot spire is being restored; and a new computer-designed lighting system makes it a beacon of beauty against the night sky. When the university is complete, that light will refract, luminous, through the plate glass towers, lecture halls, labs and libraries of its new campus.
From this lovely setting, itself a new creation full of hope and new beginning, we reflect on the rich imagery of light in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and their traditions of faith.
MUSIC – BE THOU MY VISION (Slane: Irish traditional melody)
Let us pray:
Lord God, your light brought creation into being and you came to us in Jesus Christ to bring light and life. Cleanse and renew us by your Spirit that we may walk in the light and glorify your name, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. AMEN
Light took on new meaning for me last December when, on the day of the Winter Solstice, an hour before dawn, I found myself huddled with twelve others in the inner chamber of the Neolithic monument of Newgrange deep beneath the earth of County Louth in Ireland.
Older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids, Newgrange was constructed in stone by ancient builders for what purpose we know not. We do know that on the morning of the Winter Solstice, if the sky is clear, the first rays of the Winter Sun travel down a precisely engineered shaft and illuminate a chamber in the interior of the structure for only 18 minutes.
We twelve had been chosen from an online ballot of over thirty thousand people. Pressed together in the dark, the archaeologist-guide lowered our expectations, telling us that clouds usually obscured the light and that penetration of the sun rays was rare. We waited, silent, embarrassed, excited. And then it happened – instant, soundless: a laser beam of fire shot across the chamber floor, at first an inch thick, then gradually widening to a foot. It was more than light; it was alive and dancing; moving and flickering like the Sun. And, for the first time, I – a child of the light bulb and instant electricity – understood the visceral power of light penetrating darkness; and felt its ancient, mesmerising force.
Is it any wonder that light should have evoked the Divine Creation for the Jewish people in the scriptures written more than a millennium after Newgrange was built?
A Reading from the Book of Genesis
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.
“Light out of darkness; creation out of nothing.” The beginning of Genesis will never sound the same for me after that winter solstice in Newgrange.
Often poetry with its precisely chosen language and imagery sheds new light on old ideas. The American poet JW Johnston sees God’s creative action at the beginning of time as a response to Divine Loneliness....
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’ll make me a world.
And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!
Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!
MUSIC – O NATA LUX DE LUMINE (Tallis)
O nata lux de Lumine- O light born of light
For Christians, God’s creative power reached its fullest expression in the life of Jesus who, as a Jew steeped in the Scriptures, spoke in images of light; and was spoken of by his intimate followers as the light of humanity.
A Reading from the of St Paul to the Ephesians
You were darkness once but now you are light in the Lord. Be like children of light, for the effects of the light are seen in complete goodness, and right living and truth. Try to discover what the Lord wants for you, having nothing to do with the futile works of darkness. Anything exposed by the light will be illuminated and anything illuminated turns into light. That is why it is said:
Wake up from your sleep,
Rise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.
The Word of the Lord
FATHER MICHAEL MCGINNITY As a child growing up, I was always fascinated by light and darkness. I loved to watch the sunrise as my little world moved into daylight. And in the evening, as the sun disappeared over the horizon, I’d watch the stars come out while darkness fell.
That natural movement from darkness into daylight is one that captured the imagination of the early Christians. St Paul used it as an image in our second reading to speak about the influence of Christ on those who believed in him, ‘You were darkness once but now you are light in the Lord. Be like children of light, for the effects of the light are seen in complete goodness, and right living and truth......’
In these words Paul is reminding us that the only life worth living is a truly human life. And if we want to discover what it is to be human, we need only turn our hearts and minds towards the person of Jesus.
As the light of the world, Jesus opened people’s eyes to see beauty and goodness in their shared humanity. When you think about it, Jesus was always inviting people to set out on a human journey. The first step of that journey always meant moving out of the darkness of their own little world – a world in which they could only see themselves and their own concerns. Jesus always wanted everyone to step out into the light of his world vision, where everyone is seen as a brother and a sister – with the same joys and struggles as everyone else.
We catch a glimpse of this new vision, in the Last Judgement scene recorded in Matthew’s gospel. At the climax of the story, we hear the king say, ‘Whatever you did to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’ Those are words to start a revolution! For they remind us that we belong to everyone. And everyone belongs to us. In our hearts, we are to carry the hopes and fears of people everywhere. And with our hands we are to reach out in acts of humble service. This is our purpose in life – simply to be fully human – walking as children of the light.
It’s a radical vision of what it means to live a human life. But imagine the difference it would make if governments across the world could see people as Jesus wants them to be seen. Imagine the efforts the wealthy part of the world might go to to help make life sustainable for the starving millions in Africa. Coming closer to home-what about you and me? Where in our lives does this vision of a shared humanity burn brightly? The day after the Grenfell tower disaster, I listened to a woman describe how she cleared her wardrobe and donated all her clothes to the homeless families. She said to a reporter, ‘ I can replace the clothes. But those people can’t replace what they’ve lost.’ And I thought to myself, that woman is living the vision - she knows in her heart those people have a claim on her.
MUSIC – O RADIANT DAWN (James MacMillan)
From the first chapters of Genesis when God said “Let there be light”, the word light occurs and recurs throughout the Bible where it is often contrasted with darkness. Isn’t it true that we often experience our own lives as playgrounds of light and darkness – often as battlegrounds?
This creation account in the Book of Genesis wasn’t written as science but was intended as a profound theological riposte in story to the Babylonian religion surrounding the captive Hebrews. The Epic of Gilgamesh held that humans are ultimately the products of darkness and, at heart, evil. To this, the scriptural authors asserted: no – at core, all that God creates is good! That is the foundation for Jewish, and for the Christian faith.
And yet, the darkness in our lives and in the world is all too evident.
From the earliest times Christian liturgies have sought to acknowledge this experience of darkness that pervades our lives and our world and, at the same time, assert the goodness of God and the calm reign of the Kingdom of Christ. In the liturgy, the confession is an admission in humility of communal fault and personal frailty in the face of evil. Such confession, effectively a purification of memory in the face of God before undertaking new tasks, as part of daily worship, at the beginning as well as the ending of each new day.
Jesus said, I am the light of the world. Those who follow me shall not dwell in darkness, but will have the light of life.
Let us then bring our failings and faults into his light as we confess our sins.
Lord you have given us life but we walk in darkness
Lord have mercy Lord have mercy
Jesus is the Light of the world but we often shun his guidance
Christ have mercy Christ have mercy
Jesus tells us to be light to the world but we prefer to hide our light
Lord have mercy Lord have mercy
Almighty God you bring to light thing hidden in darkness and know the shadows of our hearts; cleanse and renew us by your Spirit, that we may walk in the light and glorify your name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN
MUSIC THOU KNOWEST LORD (Purcell)
In the gathering dusk of August 1914, as diplomacy failed and the guns began to pound, Sir Edward Grey famously said: the lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
Darkness, the absence of light, has often seemed to me, a fitting symbol of the twentieth century in which I was born, with its gulags, concentration camps, genocides and wars. Is there a darkness so deep that no light is possible? If so, the night of Auschwitz has a good claim. It stands as an icon of cruelty. And yet, from within this darkness emerged one of the century’s great books of spiritual guidance. In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Victor Frankl reflects on an experience whilst imprisoned there:
“We stumbled on in the darkness along the one road leading from the camp. The guards driving us with the buts of their rifles. My mind clung to my wife’s image. I saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look, more luminous than the sun. A thought transfixed me: I saw the truth – a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss be it only for a moment in the contemplation of his beloved. A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if my wife was still alive. I knew only one thing: nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. At this moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable, grey morning: ‘et lux in tenebris lucet – and the light shines in the darkness.’”
I had a crashing insight early one morning, years ago, in the convent chapel where I used to say Mass for a group of nuns at 7am. There I was, kneeling after Mass for my thanksgiving prayers – that day a grumpy desire to be back in bed – when I looked up. And saw it: a sight so beautiful and so unexpected that it made me gasp in delight: the first light of dawn, streaming through stained glass, flooding the chapel with colour, haemorrhaging its blue-red light over me, making the place as luminous as a jewel box. I bathed in its beauty, astonished. And realised: I have been here countless times before but missed this – because I have never taken the time to look up.
Walking home, I wondered what else I had missed in my daily life; what had I failed to see in front of my nose that would have lifted my heart – always looking elsewhere: for the big picture or the next project? I made a list of what actually brought daily joy. They were the simple things: the first mug of coffee; the first lung full of fresh air; birdsong in the morning. It completely changed my attitude to everyday life. I know nothing of what today may bring – but these things fill me with gratitude now; and the deep need to say “thank you” to God who for me is not an answer to a dry equation but the one who fills my senses with the light of simple things.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel according to Matthew
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill-top cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub. They put it on a lamp stand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in the sight of men, so that seeing your good works, they may give the praise to your father in heaven.
The Gospel of the Lord
MUSIC – LEAD KINDLY LIGHT (Sandon: CH Purday)
FATHER MICHAEL MCGINNITY A few months ago, some of our parishioners started a conversation with me around what troubled them most about our world. It came as no surprise to hear that terrorism was top of the list. But there were other concerns too, like the current food crisis in northern Kenya and other parts of Africa. At a personal level, people spoke of their fears about growing old and the kind of society their grand children might have to live in.
The more we talked, the more helpless people started to sound. An air of gloom quickly descended. Then someone suggested, ‘Why don’t we pray for the nations of the world. Who knows what might happen afterwards. We might even feel moved to do something.’ All of a sudden it was like a candle had been lit in a darkened room. And people were instantly attracted to the idea.
A few weeks later, we gathered in our parish church along with other Christians whom we had invited from across the city. To create a focus for this global prayer, a huge map of the world was placed on the floor right in front of the altar. In the darkness we could barely see it, as the words of Jesus were proclaimed – ‘You are the light of the world. No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house.’
Then, one by one, as each continent was prayed for, a candle was lit and brought forward to be placed on that part of the map. Slowly but surely, each continent was held in a gentle glow, until finally the whole world had emerged from the darkness. That powerful experience of light scattering darkness reminded all of us that we are to share the light of Christ’s love wherever we are and wherever we go. It’s not a private possession of the privileged few, but a gift that we freely offer to every human being. It means seeing people as people – At times it calls for a celebration of all that is best in the human heart. At other times helping them carry what weighs them down is what’s called for. I’m sure all of us can think of people whose light give hope in good times and bad.
A rabbi tells the story of a student who once asked his teacher, ‘When can you tell that the day is breaking?’ And the teacher replies, ‘You can tell that day is breaking when you’ve enough light to see every man or woman as your brother or sister.’
Where might Christ be calling you to let your light shine today?
Heavenly Father, we bring to you our prayers and the needs of all who have asked us to pray for them at this time
1. We pray Lord for Pope Francis and the bishops of the Church. May their teaching and example lead all God’s people to a living faith in Jesus Christ.
Lord in your mercy/hear our prayer.
2. We pray for ourselves and our families. May the light of Christ’s love and mercy be clearly seen in all we do for the needy and disadvantaged. Lord in your mercy/ hear our prayer
3. We pray for all nations suffering the effects of war and conflict. May efforts to create the conditions for peace find support in the international community. Lord in your mercy/hear our prayer
4. We pray for the protection of our planet. May all people of good will respect the world’ s natural resources for present and future generations. Lord in your mercy/hear our prayer
5. We remember those who have died. May they find peace and joy in the presence of God. Lord in your mercy/hear our prayer
THE LORD’S PRAYER
Christ the sun of righteousness shine upon you, gladden your hearts and scatter the darkness from before your path. And the blessing of Almighty God come down upon you: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, AMEN
MUSIC – LOVE DIVINE ALL LOVES EXCELLING IBlaenwern:WP Rowlands)