It’s mid December, and the duties of a long, demanding semester have finally come to an end. I’m sitting quietly by the warmth of a log fire in my living room. Here in County Antrim, the winter days are short, and the winter nights that follow can seem very dark.
The year that is drawing to a close has brought great change and challenge right across our world. Each day seems to have been marked by uncertainty, and many have proven difficult. We have tried to make sense of situations that sadden and perplex us. We have weathered a relentless storm of information in the midst of which the individual worth and dignity of human life at times seem somehow to have been lost. We have lamented the passing of former joys, and we continue to long for their return. In these days, I find peace and reassurance in the steady, gentle light of a candle. Its quiet presence reminds me of the great Gospel words of St. John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.
We are not the only generation to have experienced disruption and trouble. Many of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived through war, and knew what it was to suffer injury and loss. Their lives might seem distant, but they are an important source of inspiration to us still. Recently I enjoyed listening to two Trinity Forum conversations with Alan Jacobs about his books In the Year of Our Lord 1943 and Breaking Bread with the Dead. Jacobs talks about the value not only of considering lives lived in the past, but also of reading ‘old books’. Jacobs’s point is that people who lived and wrote in days and years gone by found themselves in a world in many respects very different to our own, and yet shared the same distinctly human emotions and experiences of being that we do. They have much, then, to teach us.
From the perspective of the Christian faith, considering the lives of previous generations of believers has much value: their work can point to the reality of God and His goodness. Professor John Lennox highlights this at the outset of his special Christmas message for 2020. Through the centuries that have passed since the first Christmas, the light of Christ has continued to be reflected in small and great ways in the everyday lives of His followers: people who have told out Christ’s message of hope as they helped others, showed compassion to the sick, cared for the poor, reformed prisons, campaigned against slavery, and established schools and hospitals.
Three years ago to the day as I write, a new sculpture of Amy Carmichael (1867-1951), created by artist and sculptor Ross Wilson, was unveiled in Bangor, County Down, not far from Amy’s birthplace, the small coastal village of Millisle in Northern Ireland.
Amy Carmichael’s life was illuminated by the light of Christ. She brought that light to many living in disadvantaged communities in the city of Belfast, here in Ireland, but later in her life to communities much further afield, in Asia. Amy was instrumental in creating a shelter and sanctuary for endangered children in Dohnavur, India, a homeplace that give them safety, and offered them hope and a future.
The offering of sanctuary to children is also central to the story of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon. In this remote corner of rural France, extraordinary hospitality was shown by ordinary people to refugees, many of whom were children, thus saving them from transportation to deathcamps. On a recent visit we met one of these enfants cachés, Maxime Friedenberg, now a sculptor. The kindness that Maxime experienced as a child on the Plateau was a quiet beacon of light in a very dark period of world history.
Seeing photographs of the first snows of winter that fell on the Plateau this week reminded me of this story of hope. We need to hear more stories like this.
Il neige sur le Plateau In the photograph the land is white and blanketed. The story is told by silent pines that stand beneath the stars as witnesses of refuge. All this at the dawn of Advent when the humble light of candles lit in homes speaks quiet hope across a troubled globe, held, still, in the hand of God.
Like the gentle light of a candle at Advent, the life of Amy Carmichael, and the lives of the remarkable French inhabitants of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, are gifts of hope. They encourage us, also, to live as Children of Light, shining, as St. Paul put it, like stars in a world of darkness. Ultimately, their kindness and compassion and truth point to Jesus, the everlasting Light of the World, born in Bethlehem on the first Christmas, so very long ago, but whose resurrection life is indestructible.