The Light of the World by Evelyn Underhill


Now burn, new born to the world,
Doubled-naturéd name,
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Mid-numbered He in three of the thunder-throne!
Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark
as he came;
Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;
A released shower, let flash to the shire, not
a lightning of fire hard-hurled.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

When we come to the first window at the east end of the aisle, the morning light comes through it. It is the window of the Incarnation. It brings us at once to the mingled homeliness and mystery of the Christian revelation and of our own little lives. It is full of family pictures and ideas – the birth of Christ, the Shepherds and the Magi, the little boy of Nazareth, the wonderful experience in the temple, the long quiet years in the carpenter’s shop. There seems nothing so very supernatural about the first stage. But stand back and look – Mira! Mira!

We are being shown here something profoundly significant about human life – “God speaks in a Son,” a baby son, and reverses all our pet values. He speaks in our language and shows us his secret beauty on our scale. We have got to begin not by an arrogant other-worldliness, but by a humble recognition that human things can be holy, very full of God, and that high-minded speculations about his nature need not be holy at all; that all life is engulfed in him and he can reach out to us anywhere at any level.

As the Christmas Day gospel takes us back to the mystery of the divine nature – In the beginning was the Word? – so let us begin by thinking of what St. Catherine called the “Ocean Pacific of the Godhead” enveloping all life. The depth and richness of his being are entirely unknown to us, poor little scraps as we are! And yet the unlimited life who is Love right through – who loves and is wholly present where he loves, on every plane and at every point – so loved the world as to desire to give his essential thought, the deepest secrets of his heart to this small, fugitive, imperfect creation – to us. That seems immense.

And then the heavens open and what is disclosed? A baby, God manifest in the flesh. The stable, the manger, the straw; poverty, cold, darkness – these form the setting of the divine gift. In this child God gives his supreme message to the soul – Spirit to spirit – but in a human way. Outside in the fields the heavens open and the shepherds look up astonished to find the music and radiance of reality all around them. But inside, our closest contact with that same reality is being offered to us in the very simplest, homeliest way – emerging right into our ordinary life. A baby – just that. We are not told that the blessed, virgin Mary saw the angels or heard the Gloria in the air. Her initiation had been quite different, like the quiet voice speaking in our deepest prayer – “The Lord is with thee!” “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Humble self-abandonment is quite enough to give us God.

Think of the tremendous contrast, transcendent and homely, brought together here as a clue to the Incarnation – the hard life of the poor, the absolute surrender and helplessness of babyhood and the unmeasured outpouring of divine life.

The Christmas mystery has two parts: the nativity and the epiphany. A deep instinct made the Church separate these two feasts. In the first we commemorate God’s humble entrance into human life, the emergence and birth of the holy, and in the second its manifestation to the world, the revelation of the supernatural made in that life. And the two phases concern our inner lives very closely too. The first only happens in order that the second may happen, and the second cannot happen without the first. Christ is a Light to lighten the Gentiles as well as the glory of his people Israel. Think of what the Gentile was when these words were written – an absolute outsider. All cozy religious exclusiveness falls before that thought. The Light of the world is not the sanctuary lamp in your favorite church.

It is easy for the devout to join up with the shepherds and fall into place at the crib and look out into the surrounding night and say, “Look at those extraordinary intellectuals wandering about after a star, with no religious sense at all! Look at that clumsy camel, what an unspiritual animal it is! We know the ox and the ass are the right animals to have! Look what queer gifts and odd types of self-consecration they are bringing; not the sort of people who come to church!” But remember that the child who began by receiving these very unexpected pilgrims had a woman of the streets for his faithful friend and two thieves for his comrades at the end: and looking at these two extremes let us try to learn a little of the height and breadth and depth of his love – and then apply it to our own lives.

Beholding his glory is only half our job. In our souls too the mysteries must be brought forth; we are not really Christians till that has been done. “The Eternal Birth,” says Eckhart, “must take place in you.” And another mystic says human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice; animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ must be born and in their very manger he must be laid – and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.

The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves: it is because his manifestation in the world must be through us. Every Christian is, as it were, part of the dust-laden air which shall radiate the glowing epiphany of God, catch and reflect his golden Light. Ye are the light of the world – but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the one Light of the world. And being kindled, we have got to get on with it, be useful. As Christ said in one of his ironical flashes, “Do not light a candle in order to stick it under the bed!” Some people make a virtue of religious skulking.

When you don’t see any startling marks of your own religious condition or your usefulness to God, think of the baby in the stable and the little Boy in the streets of Nazareth. The very life was there which was to change the whole history of the human race. There was not much to show for it. But there is entire continuity between the stable and the Easter garden and the thread that unites them is the will of God. The childlike simple prayer of Nazareth was the right preparation for the awful privilege of the Cross. Just so the light of the Spirit is to unfold gently and steadily within us, till at last our final stature, all God designed for us, is attained. It is an organic process, a continuous divine action, not a series of jerks. So on the one hand there should be no strain, impatience, self-willed effort in our prayer and self-discipline; and on the other, no settling down. A great flexibility, a gentle acceptance of what comes to us and a still gentler acceptance of the fact that much we see in others is still out of our reach. We must keep our prayer free, youthful – full of confidence and full of initiative too.

The mystics keep telling us that the goal of that prayer and the goal of that hidden life which should itself become more and more of a prayer, is “union with God.” We use that phrase often, much too often to preserve the wholesome sense of its awe-fullness. For what does union with God mean? It is not a nice feeling we get in devout moments. That may or may not be a by-product of union – probably not. It can never be its substance. Union with God means every bit of our human nature transfigured in Christ, woven up into his creative life and activity, absorbed into his redeeming purpose, heart, soul, mind and strength. Each time it happens it means that one of God’s creatures has achieved its destiny.


Evelyn Underhill

Reprinted from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Used with permission.

Why Advent?



Though Advent (arrival) has been observed for centuries as a time to contemplate Christ’s birth, most people today acknowledge it only with a blank look. For the vast majority of us, December flies by in a flurry of activities, and what is called “the holiday season” turns out to be the most stressful time of the year.

It is also a time of contrasting emotions. We are eager, yet frazzled; sentimental, yet indifferent. One minute we glow at the thought of getting together with our family and friends; the next we feel utterly lonely. Our hope is mingled with dread, our anticipation with despair. We sense the deeper meanings of the season but grasp at them in vain; and in the end, all the bustle leaves us frustrated and drained.

Even we who do not experience such tensions – who genuinely love Christmas – often miss its point. Content with candles and carols and good food, we bask in the warmth of familiar traditions, in reciprocated acts of kindness, and in feelings of general goodwill. How many of us remember the harsh realities of Christ’s first coming: the dank stable, the cold night, the closed door of the inn? How many of us share the longing of the ancient prophets, who awaited the Messiah with such aching intensity that they foresaw his arrival thousands of years before he was born?

Mother Teresa once noted that the first person to welcome Christ was John the Baptist, who leaped for joy on recognizing him, though both of them were still within their mothers’ wombs. We, in stark contrast, are often so dulled by superficial distractions that we are incapable of hearing any voice within, let alone listening to it. Consequently, the feeling we know as Christmas cheer lacks any real connection to the vital spirit that radiated from the manger.

We miss the essence of Christmas unless we become, in the words of Eberhard Arnold, “mindful of how Christ’s birth took place.” Once we do, we will sense immediately that Advent marks something momentous: God’s coming into our midst. That coming is not just something that happened in the past. It is a recurring possibility here and now. And thus Advent is not merely a commemorative event or an anniversary, but a yearly opportunity for us to consider the future, second Advent – the promised coming of God’s kingdom on earth.

Such an understanding of Christmas is possible only insofar as we let go of the false props of convention and seek to unlock its central paradox. That paradox, to paraphrase the modern martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is the fact that God’s coming is not only a matter of glad tidings but, first of all, “frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”

The love that descended to Bethlehem is not the easy sympathy of an avuncular God, but a burning fire whose light chases away every shadow, floods every corner, and turns midnight into noon. This love reveals sin and overcomes it. It conquers darkness with such forcefulness and intensity that it scatters the proud, humbles the mighty, feeds the hungry, and sends the rich away empty-handed (Luke 1:51-53).

Because a transformation of this scale can never be achieved by human means, but only by divine intervention, Advent (to quote Bonhoeffer again) might be compared to a prison cell “in which one waits and hopes and does various unessential things… but is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside.” It is a fitting metaphor. But dependency does not release us from responsibility. If the essence of Advent is expectancy, it is also readiness for action: watchfulness for every opening, and willingness to risk everything for freedom and a new beginning.

That is why the imagery of nativity scenes is not sufficient to explain the Christmas message. Yes, God came into the feeding trough of an animal. But it was not only as a baby that he lay there. This child was the same man who was crucified on Golgotha, and who rose again. Within the manger lies the cross – and the hope of redemption and resurrection.

To recognize this requires reverence and humility. It requires faith. We might ask, “What grounds are there for such hope?” Or we might seek to become like children, and believe. Mary did. So did the shepherds and the wise men of the East. So can each of us, wherever we are.

-Charles Moore

From Watch for the Light. Used by permission.

Reluctance by Robert Frost

 First Snow
Out through the fields and the woods
   And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
   And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
   And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
   Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
   And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
   When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
   No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
   The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
   But the feet question ‘Whither?’
Ah, when to the heart of man
   Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
   To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
   Of a love or a season?

–Robert Frost (1874–196