So here is the activity for the week. To do this, you will need one fresh (not moist) wintergreen Life Saver, a room with a mirror that can be completely dark, and a good set of teeth. Go into the room, stand in front of the mirror, unwrap the Life Saver, turn off the light, and chomp away with your mouth open. You will notice a blue violet glow emanating from your mouth. Pretty cool! I know most of you probably did this as a child. At one point I could remember the scientific explanation behind this phenomenon, but that is not really important here. What is important in this example is the light in the darkness.
Even that little bit of light can make a whole lot of difference in the room. Yet that light is not sustainable. It is only lasts for one or two good chomps. Now if you are really eager, you can light a match. It is amazing how bright one match can be in a dark room. With the match lit, you can probably make out most of the furniture. But, again, it lasts only a few seconds until you need to blow out the match. You can substitute all kinds of light sources, gradually bringing more and more light to the space for longer periods of time. But, ultimately, all of that lighting is temporary. Yes, even the switch on the wall can break or the power can go out.
Back in the time of Christ, they obviously did not have electricity or wintergreen Life Savers. At night the city streets were dark, and while fire and candles were around, most of the light that was present would have come from the night sky. For those who were writing down the biblical stories, the prime examples of light in the darkness would have been the stars. When you are away from city lights, you recognize how powerful and bright they can be!
The stars stood out and played many important roles in society. I will focus on two, which I call “illumination” and “direction.” The first is illumination. In sermons, this is the imagery that often focuses on Christ being the light. As the earlier experiments show, a little bit of light can illumine a lot of the world around you. Although at one point you could not see in the dark, with just a spark, your environment became a bit clearer.
As a tradition, Christianity did not develop to answer all questions or problems. One thing that was true at the time of Christ as well as today is that situations are difficult, and answers are not easy to give. Look at the rules of Sabbath, which Christ took on. In principle, Christ does not say they are inherently bad, and in many places advocates for them, but when one is in need, the laws of the Sabbath must be set aside to do what is right for the betterment of society.
The truth that Christ teaches is that we live in a world of darkness, because we cannot always see where God is calling us to act or be present. Things get funny, even with religious laws, since even the laws create more confusion then help at times. But when we give ourselves over to Christ, we live in the light, and the light that is in Christ will always show us a new and fuller way.
So the first example of light in the darkness shows us how in the midst of confusion, even when we think we cannot see fully, when we give ourselves over to Christ, we can begin to see the world in better focus. While a little illumination can make a big difference, I think direction is even more interesting. It is how a little light in darkness can actually give more clarity and direction then a flood of light all the time. We often forget that before GPS and other technologies, the stars were the map used to get from one place to the other. It is no coincidence that the “wise ones” and shepherds followed the star. It showed a clear way even in the darkness. In a world where things are often hard to navigate, we can count on Christ to direct a beacon that shows us how we should live and what we should be doing.
One of the big problems with light in the darkness is coming to understand what the light is telling us or directing us to do. The directional cues that come from the light are not always apparent. Just think, if we were sent out into the desert and told we had to navigate our way home by the stars, most of us would be unable to do so immediately. We would need to use a lot of trial and error to discern where each star was “pointing.”
That brings us to another and very important aspect of the faith: answers are rarely clear! So we must take time to study the light that we are given. As a community, we witness the light, and together, try to discern what it means. This is where everything is brought in, and we look at all the information that is given.
To return to the example of the wintergreen Life Saver, to gain understanding, we might talk about all of our experiences with it, look at the scientific explanation of triboluminescence, examine other information and anecdotes to bring meaning and relevance to what we saw, and then discern how important or unimportant each are. If we are researching triboluminescence, then that becomes important, but for most of us, it’s just a cool phenomenon, and there is nothing wrong with that! But when it comes to faith, discerning both the light and its direction does make a big difference. It enables us to better follow where God is calling us.
For the full scientific explanation of what is happening with the wintergreen Life Saver, click here
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen