Deep beneath the Bodleian Library in Oxford, there are many rooms of movable book stacks. Hardly any of the Bodleian’s collection is on open shelves, and most have to be ordered. You used to fill in a little slip, and an hour or so later your book would be ready for you. However, they needed more study space, so the books were moved the stacks to a much less romantic warehouse in Swindon, and the stacks converted to atmospheric and quirky study space. Going down below pavement level, underneath Radcliffe Square, you find yourself in a modern space, yet one with plenty of Victorian ironwork.
There’s a rumour that there was a power cut, and someone found themselves trapped, in underground darkness, lost and not knowing how to get out.
At first, they thought it would be over very soon, but it wasn’t. Then there were loud bumps and crashes and swearing, as people tried to find their way out. But as time went on people got annoyed and frightened.
Then, the story goes, someone spotted a small beam of light, and people moved towards the light. It was much easier for people to go to the light than it was for the person with the light to search for them.
It turned out to be one little tiny torch, that gave enough light. It’s amazing how little light we need sometimes. Like the magi, who only needed the pinpoint of a new star to find their way to Jesus.
The world can seem an awfully dark place sometimes. Things like ISIS, climate change, and Donald Trump burden us with doubts about the reality of God or the goodness of humanity.
Personal lives can also be dark. Strained relationships, economic troubles, loved ones sick or dying or both; marriages or careers or children haven’t worked out quite the way we’d planned.
We do what we can to push back the darkness.
Some people give in to addictions, numbing their pain with their addiction of choice. Others embrace philosophy or practice politics, believing and hoping that by thinking right or doing right they can cure their sickness unto death; that by saving the Dartford Warbler they can somehow save their souls.
Still others go for material success, as if by surrounding themselves with enough stuff they can insulate themselves from decay and despair.
Some try to turn back the clock, struggling to resurrect “traditional values,” as if time could be reversed and the days of Harold MacMillian or Clement Atlee can be brought back to save us from ourselves.
A few years ago I was in the queue in the Post Office just before Christmas when the clerk turned and called back to his supervisor, “there’s a lady here who wants to swap some religious for some traditional.” It occurred to me that that is what many of us have done without thinking too deeply, to swap the truly religious for the merely traditional. In our search for meaning, have we tried the safe route of attempting to recreate happy times and safe places in our lives by following “the way we’ve always done it,” instead of taking the risk of following the star into new times and new places?
The world needs is the light of the gospel, but the gospel is not a garish, neon light. The light of Christ has always been a little hard to see, something of a “dimly burning wick.”
The Magi have much to teach us here. They were people who made a little light go a long way. Indeed a very little light led them to go a long way. It’s surprising how little light we need sometimes, if we have the faith to go with it.
They didn’t have the scriptures or the religious traditions to prepare them for a messiah. They did not grow up in a culture that expected a saviour to come and rescue them.
The only light they had was the light of the stars, and this new star, this new light, this new thing in the sky. What did it mean? Where might it lead? They didn’t know, but they followed.
God sent us the light in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s a light that can pierce the darkness of our lives.
But it is a small and somewhat unobtrusive light.
And it is at times encrusted with 2000 years of traditionalism.
And it is a light that must compete with brighter and more insistent lights in order to be seen.
But it’s amazing how little light one needs sometimes in order to find one’s way.
We have been called to follow the light and to be the light for others.
We have been called to shine, gently, the patient and never ending love of God into the midst of all the world’s dark and scary places.
We have been called to invite all God’s beloved children into the light.
Don’t worry, we don’t have to shine that brightly.
It is amazing how little light you need sometimes to find your way.