Chapter Talk

MARY : Light and Dark

This talk has an eye on the liturgy of the Immaculate Conception but it has also a theme of its own: light and dark in Our Lady.

Since she derives all her light from God, let us look briefly first at the divine light as presented by the Scripture. “God is light”, says St John in his first Epistle (1:5), “and in Him there is no darkness at all”. We shall see in a moment the different meanings of darkness. The Son is always presented to us in the same way. He is “lux in tenebris” , the antithesis of a darkness He has come to dispel and illumine. “I am the light of the world”.

Mary’s light is a reflected light of this uncreated light. She is “candor lucis aeternae”. Although there is a sense in which all baptized Christians might claim to be mirrors of divine light, a responsory for the Solemnity points out how Mary’s case is unique. She is the way by which the light entered the world “ut oriretur lumen indeficiens”.  Filled with God, she is a light-filled cloud, nubis lucida, says St. Epiphanius, (3rd Noct. 8 Dec.), as if the eternal light pierced through her own flesh. That light makes her, says another responsory, white as the snow on Lebanon; or again, she is the dwelling of the Most High, the new Jerusalem, habentem claritatem Dei. The claritas, the whiteness of light when applied to Mary, always has the meaning of purity. She is more pure than natural light, luci comparata invenitur purior; she is the pure dove, according to St. Epiphanius; the immaculate white lily; or, in Ephesians (None, lectio brevis), the unblemished Church, washed and made clean beforehand by the redeeming act of her Son.

Since Mary, always designated as the woman clothed in the Sun, is the bearer of the light in the world, carrying Him in her arms, gestans lumen in ulnis; and since she shares in the characteristics of the Light, she acts like Him in the world/ Christ our Light is truth and so, in the biblical sense, justice, authenticity and faithfulness. She, in her turn, is the plena gratiæ, highly favoured by God, the Virgo fidelis./ Light is life; since light is indispensable for living.  Mary gives life to the Author of life and is Mother of all those who are alive in Christ. / Light is word, the lamp for the path.  Mary speaks only luminous words: ‘Do whatever He tells you.‘ ( Light is charity, since it is light for others, lightening their darkness.  Our Lady at Cana thinks of a young couple’s embarrassment, perhaps of their poverty or pecuniary crisis.  Light is judgement, revelation, capacity for seeing Christ in glory. “Father, they are thy gift to me,” prays Jesus. “I wish that where I am they may also be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me.” (Jn 17:24)  Mary, assumed into heaven, shows us what we shall become: seers of God./Light is salvation. As light manifests Christ in heaven, so it is a symbol to describe the condition of the blessed in the life to come and their participation in glory, in the kingdom of love, truth and joy. Mary, Mater Salvatoris, the Cause of our joy, already enjoying the fruits of salvation, intercedes for us as a loving Mother, that we, too, may enter one day into this world of unending happiness.

Is there, then, a place for darkness in our definition of God, in the lives of Jesus and Mary and hence in our own spiritual lives? Not, of course, if we give it the negative connotation of sin, error and blindness of heart. But there is a sense in which it is an image which best describes an aspect of the divinity, despite our faltering and inadequate human language. The French Dictionary of Spirituality makes a distinction between caligo, the darkness in which God wraps himself and the tenebræ of distressing obscurity.

Whether this is a generalisation or not (caligo is used in the Compline hymn in a rather negative sense), the symbol of darkness for the divine transcendence, His mystery and incomprehensibility does appear in Scripture, though less often than the metaphor of light. Vere tu es Deus absconditus. In Ps 17:12 we have “He made darkness (caligo) His secret place; His pavilion round about Him… ” It is the ambience for mysterious encounter with the Divinity. Moses receives the Law on Mount Sinai in darkness; Jacob struggles with the angel during the night until break of day; Samuel is called during the quiet hours of darkness. This is the time when the invisible can reach the soul more easily, when the questing, curious mind loses its anchorage among visible images and distractions, when it is vulnerable and receptive and thrown onto God in its solitude. It is the time when Jesus himself prayed – all night, it is said. He proposes it as the best time for watching for the return of the Bridegroom, who so often comes media nocte. In the Gospel, we see him operating (Jn 21:4) in the semi-dark, or half-light, as in the meeting with the disciples on the shore after His Resurrection. In the liturgy we have the Beata Nox of the Exsultet.

There is a side of Mary’s life which is also conducted in shadow. The first scriptural example is her overshadowing by the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation, recalling the Spirit hovering over the waters at the beginning of creation, when “darkness was upon the face of the deep.” (Gen 1:2) This darkness, from which God separates the light, is also created by Him. It is, as it were, the matrix of creation. Light emerges from the heart of darkness. The birth of Jesus Christ takes place in darkness, traditionally in the middle of the night, while shepherds watched on the hills above Bethlehem. “While all things were in quiet silence and night was in the midst of her course, your almighty Word leapt down from heaven from you royal throne.” (Wis.18:14)  In the beautiful image of the liturgy of 1st January he comes down silently, invisibly, like rain upon a fleece; sicut pluvia in vellus. The shining of a star tells us that the Magi came to adore by night. The night-time is also favourable for escape from visible terrors. Joseph, warned by a dream – again one presumes during night-time sleep – takes Mary and Jesus nocte in clandestine flight to Egypt, away from the wrath of Herod. (Mt 2:14)

Darkness is often seen, notably in mystical theology, as the element of purification. Since Our Lady was perfectly pure, she was not in need of purification as we are. But analogously with Our Lord, who “learned obedience through what He suffered” and “was made perfect” (Hb 5:8), she went through the darkness of trial in a perfecting process of love; not in the sense of a purgation for sin but to practise a greater love. Like Our Lord, she is given opportunities or tests to prove her love. Thus, she is troubled ‘in the dark,’ at the Angel’s strange announcement and seeks to dispel her unknowing. She loses the 12 year old Jesus in Jerusalem and seeks Him in anxiety of mind. Even when she finds Him in the Temple, obscurity persists. As she stands at the foot of the Cross, “it was now about the sixth hour and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the Sun’s light failed.” (Lk 22:24) This material darkness she shares with Jesus; the light that shone out at creation seems to be engulfed again by chaos; the Light of the world appears to be extinguished like a lamp on a candelabra (cf Asterius). Some have seen in this darkness a new creation, as prophesied in Is 60:2. “Behold, darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples, but the Lord shall rise upon you and his glory will be seen upon you.” The Mother is present at this new creation and this new rising.


This lends her, too, an aura of mystery. She is an enigma to us. St Ephrem calls her case “beyond comprehension”. In the lesson from St Epiphanius she is liber incomprehensus, book not understood. Christ, too, is compared to a book by an anonymous author, who says that it is more easily read by night than by day. We might take this to mean that the conceptual, the intellectual, has to give way before an experience of divine transcendence. Similarly, Mary’s unique role as Mother of God and Mother of the Church is beyond our natural comprehension; it belongs to the order of faith and shares in the darkness of faith.

Since we have established the credentials of darkness, we are ready to see its purpose in our own lives. Even material darkness is good, according to Cyril of Jerusalem (Cat IX).  “How often when wearied from the toil of the day, are we refreshed in the night, and he who was yesterday toilworn comes forth vigorous in the morning because of the night’s rest. What is more conducive to wisdom than the night, during which we often ponder the things of God and devote ourselves to the reading and contemplation of the Sacred Scriptures? When does our mind tend more towards psalmody and prayer? Is this not at night?” St Bernard, too, while he mentions the negative aspect of darkness, has good words for it. (Saturday Week I of Advent – 1st Homily on Advent)  Just as Christ came once for all, visibly, that is in the light, “to work our salvation in the midst of the earth,” so He comes daily in spirit and invisibly, to save individual souls. This spiritual advent takes place in secret, that is, in darkness. In support of this view he quotes the Prophet: “Under your shadow we shall live among the gentiles.” In the quiet of our hearts, we are to rise to go and meet Him who descends toward us: “to illumine with His invisible presence the soul of every one of us.” The One who has been feeding the angels “with the vision of his own eternity and immutability has taken us and he will heal us,” even while we walk in darkness.

Many mystical writers have spoken of the healing properties of the night or the dazzling darkness, which is only excess of light. Charles Péguy links night with hope and providence, with Mater providentiæ. “Night is the place, night is the being wherein [the child] rests, wherein he retires, wherein he collects himself. Wherein he comes home. And leaves again refreshed. Night is my most beautiful creation. Now why doesn’t man make use of it. They tell me that there are men who don’t sleep at night. Night is for children.” Then: “Night forms a majestic barrier against the restlessness of days…O night, my finest invention…Creature of the greatest Hope, you give the most substance to Hope.”  Night, he continues, is like a mother who puts to bed the whole of creation. “Forerunner of eternal rest…You who bind wounds and injured limbs, You who silence hearts, You who quiet bodies, who still aching hearts, aching bodies… You who used to lay the Child Jesus every night in the arms of the most Holy and Immaculate one. You who are the turn-sister of Hope (sæur-touriere), O my daughter, first among all. You who even succeed You who occasionally succeed. You who lay man in the arms of my Providence, my maternal Providence.”

If night is a sign of God’s tenderness, if both dark and light exist in the lives of the pioneers of our salvation, then we can entrust ourselves to both, knowing that God is to be found in the midst of them.

I will conclude with an anonymous text which sums up our attitude of trust:

“If thou wilt that I be in Light, be thou blessed for it,

and if Thou wilt that I be in darkness,

still be thou blessed for it.

Light and darkness, life and death, bless ye the Lord! “