Light. It is something to which we are all drawn. It punctuates our most solemn, sacred and festive events, from birthday candles and fireworks to the Easter fire. St. Bonaventure, writing in the 13th century, noted that “light cleanses, illuminates, perfects and fortifies.” It can also heat and cook. Light is vital.
There is a reason homes bathed in natural light sell well, while the cavernous do not. Add candles to a dinner table or drape a string of lights around a deck and the space feels festive and elevated. These are not new ideas or mere preferences of taste. Gothic architecture took off in the 12th century because of innovative structural elements that bathed churches in light, in sharp contrast to their Romanesque predecessors. Renaissance churches went a step further by incorporating domes to let in even more light.
Because lighting up a room has been as easy as flipping a switch for well over a century, we forget that banishing the darkness hasn’t always been so effortless. For most of human history, fires, candles and oil lamps offered the best ways to bring some relief to dim and fearful nights. It is hard for us to comprehend the darkness of old. Imagining the weight of darkness, the fear of all that lurked in its shadows, even the relief of a full moon on a clear night, helps us recall the essential comfort and importance of light.
Today, however, we live in a world obscured by a new sort of gloom. It is not due to an absence of light, but because the Light of the World has grown dim in our own hearts, minds, homes and even churches. Fear, agitation and anxiety have become common companions in the face of encroaching shadows. Many of us are searching for answers about how to navigate this new darkness. The solemn feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, which is celebrated this month, can help lead us to them.
The Church, in her wisdom, has tightly woven light into the tapestry of the liturgical year. The placement of our feasts is not accidental, but beautifully symbolic. Consider the celebrations of Christmas on Dec. 25 and the nativity of St. John the Baptist on June 24. Christmas, one of the shortest days of the year, is wrapped in darkness, but this darkness diminishes a bit with each succeeding day. The feast of John the Baptist, roughly six months later, marks nearly the longest day of the year. The Baptist’s feast echoes his immortal words, “He must increase; I must decrease” ( Jn 3:30). Thereafter, the daylight diminishes as the days draw closer to Christ’s birth.
The Annunciation, celebrated March 25, is also perfectly positioned: Its place among the seasons underscores its meaning. The angel Gabriel’s visit to Our Lady, with a question upon which all our fates were fixed, is marked at the end of winter and the dawn of spring. The Annunciation, or announcement, comes as the days grow longer and winter recedes. The moment of Mary’s “yes” heralds the end of the age of darkness and the dawn of the age of light, with Christ’s arrival. In a certain way, we can think of Our Lady as the match who received and nurtured the divine spark, eventually setting the whole world on fire with the light from the holy Son of God, incarnate in her womb.
“With Our Lady of Light, whose ‘yes’ put an end to the darkness, our souls, families, homes and churches can be lit up once again, setting the world ablaze.”
Mary’s name is often translated as Star of the Sea (Maris Stella), as St. Jerome is known for calling her. For nearly two millennia, stories have been told about the saving power of Our Lady, Star of the Sea — not only for mariners, but also for anyone tossed about in life’s rough seas. In the 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux promoted the devotion, writing, “She is that glorious star lighting the way across this vast ocean of life, glowing with merits, guiding by example.” He adds: “If the winds of temptation arise, if you are driven upon the rocks of tribulation, look to the star, call on Mary. If you are tossed upon the waves of pride, of ambition, of envy, of rivalry, look to the star, call on Mary. Should anger, or avarice, or fleshly desire violently assail the frail vessel of your soul, look at the star, call upon Mary.”
There is another translation of Mary’s name that dates back at least to St. Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century: the one who illumines. To illumine means to brighten, light up or enlighten — physically, spiritually or intellectually. Our Lady has been illuminating the world since her first “yes” at the Annunciation, as centuries of devotion and inspiration reveal: battles won, enemies conquered, converts stirred, artists, theologians, philosophers and musicians inspired. No woman has been painted or sung about more in all of history. And she, better than any woman in all of history, has brought brightness to dark places. Appearing as Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531, she transformed a site of human sacrifice into that of the greatest mass conversion in all of history.
It is striking that both of these definitions of Mary’s name rest squarely on the notion of light. St. Bonaventure explained that “God is properly light and whatever approaches more closely to him has more of the nature of light.” It makes sense that Our Lady, as God’s masterpiece, conceived without original sin, would be as pure a light as possible.
St. Bonaventure further described how God’s perfecting light is reflected both in Our Lady and in the souls of all who love God. “Wisdom is the light descending from the Father of Lights and shining into the soul; it makes it godlike, and the house of God, for it enlightens the intellect, inflames and rejoices the affections, and strengthens the operations.” The light from the Father transforms, renews, refreshes, and dispels even the blackest night.
The answer to the darkness that envelops us today is simple and old and woven throughout the centuries. It lies in the uncomplicated act of connecting with the source of all light. And we, like the light of one candle, can illumine the whole room. With Our Lady of Light, whose “yes” put an end to the darkness, our souls, families, homes and churches can be lit up once again, setting the world ablaze.
CARRIE GRESS, Ph.D., is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a scholar at the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. A wife and mother of five, she is also the author of several books and the editor of TheologyofHome.com.
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