I'm an introvert, but not necessarily given to introspection. Too often, that has led me down the rabbit hole, so I tend to accept things at face value. Which is why I've been puzzled by my recent need to wrestle with (meditate upon?) Isaiah 9:2.
The people who walked in darknessIt's Advent, so the text shows up in various forms in hymns, prayers, and readings for the season on a regular basis. I've been hearing in in multiple translations for the better part of fifty years now. So why now? Why does it strike such a chord in my mind and heart?
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
On a surface reading, I picture a group of hikers lost in fog or blizzard or night in unfamiliar territory. They're lost and frightened, cold and hungry. Suddenly, they see a bright light piercing through whatever it is that occludes their vision. They hear their names being called, and suddenly they are safe in the grasp of Search and Rescue. Light, for them, is associated with comfort and safety. That has always been my interpretation of the passage from Isaiah. The presence of the divine will bring comfort and peace.
Or will it? Can there be more layers? So many times when we see rescue people on television, they appear disoriented. Is it a hold-over from the disorientation of the fog and darkness? Or does the sudden switch from danger to safety hold its own risk of disorientation?
It's almost a trope of science fiction and fantasy worlds that there are subterranean peoples who are disoriented and overwhelmed when they first encounter the sky and the sunlight. Most people have at least heard of, if not encountered, certain insect species that scuttle for the dark corners when confronted by light. (I'm looking at you, cockroaches.) In a more metaphorical sense, shining a bright light into the corners of one's soul (or psyche, if you prefer) is a very uncomfortable process. Therapy is a lot like a true examination of conscience. You think that light will be a balm for your pain. And then you realise there's a reason why you've been keeping parts of yourself in shadow. Not everything that you've been keeping in the dark corners is attractive in the light of day. Shadows can hide a lot of dust and cobwebs and dirty laundry. What we are all called to is a spring-cleaning of the soul. And nobody really likes spring cleaning.
Another translation of the text renders the second half of the verse thusly:
On those who dwell in the shadows, a light has shone.What does it mean to dwell in the shadows? Again, we're dealing with an image that has multiple layers of meaning. The two that stick with me, though, are the ideas of criminal or other nefarious activity that seeks to go unseen, and that of those whose lives are relegated to the shadows or fringes because their existence poses too much of a challenge to the rest of us, like the homeless and the mentally ill.
It seems to me that too many in our society are content to leave the shadows unexplored, relegating them to the status of shadow-dwellers, much as lepers in Biblical times were relegated to living in caves outside the city proper. Then, just as we are called to let the light shine into the dark corners of our own souls, we must be the light to those who dwell in the shadows of our own lives. Kindness costs nothing. Use our light to truly see others for who they are, and who they might become.
So Isaiah's words can be interpreted not just as a pretty metaphor for the coming of the Messiah, or a call to enlightenment, as a call to clarity. And through clarity, to charity, which is one of the hallmarks of the Christmas season, and which we are called to carry with us throughout the year.
A Blessed Advent and Joyous Christmas to you all.