Father of light, in you is found no shadow of change but only the fullness of life and limitless truth. Open our hearts to the voice of your Word and free us from the original darkness that shadows our vision. Restore our sight that we may look upon your Son who calls us to repentance and a change of heart, for he lives and reigns with you for ever and ever. (Liturgy of the Hours, Second Sunday of Lent)
Remain with us the whole day, Lord,
– let your grace be a sun that never sets.
“Eärendil saw now no hope left in the lands of Middle-Earth, and he turned again in despair and came not home, but sought back once more to Valinor with Ellington at his side. He stood now most often at the prow of Vingilot, and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow, and ever its light grew greater as they drew into the West. And the wise have said that it was by reason of that holy jewel that they came in time to waters that no vessels save those of the Teleri had known; and they came to the Enchanted Isles and escaped their enchantment; and they came to the Shadowy Seas and passed their shadows, and they looked upon Tol Eressëa the Lonely aisle, but tarried not; and at last they cast anchor in the Bay of Eldamar, and the Teleri saw the coming of that ship and they were amazed, gazing from afar upon the light of the Silmaril, and it was very great. Then Eärendil, first of living Men, landed on the immortal shores.” – J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Eärendil’s guiding light, the Silmaril, eventually becomes a star giving hope to the people of Middle Earth: it is that star that Sam Gamgee looks up to see from the crooked paths of Mordor, whose light helps him to remember that there are good and beautiful things higher and deeper and longer-lasting than the present evil and suffering. It is the light of that star that resides in Galdriel’s phial – a light, she says, for when all other lights go out, a light that gives Frodo the courage and strength to oppose the giant spider Shelob in her lair.
But it is this story, where it guides Eärendil through all the obstacles in his way to the “immortal shores” of his forbidden destination (forbidden because of the evil of Men and Elves), that comes to mind whenever I hear the phrase “star of the sea” (which I have been a lot, as it appears in the Marian antiphon for the season). Like the Silmaril, Mary can be a light leading us always to her Son, bringing us to His life, reminding us of His presence to give us hope. She is not the giver of life, nor the way through the obstacles, but she guides us to the One who is.
“The absence of effective treatments for manic-depressive illness in earlier times did not mean that these patients were not treated. They were treated with all sorts of substances and procedures from ancient times onward. It’s just that none of these treatments worked, and most were harmful.” – Walter A. Brown, Lithium (emphasis added)
When I came across this quote I thought instantly of modern treatments for autism – not the few designed to help an autistic individual learn to cope with the neurotypical world, but those that claim to cure the condition. Even the most mainstream behavioral therapy is concerning (particularly to autistic adults who endured it as a child), and desperate parents who can’t handle having an autistic child try many stranger and more dangerous “treatments.” Different restrictive or elimination diets are supposed to reduce the behavioral symptoms of autism, according to parental observations; given the oral and textural sensitivities of many autistic people, those diets are likely to become even more restricted to the point of being unbalanced, or very costly for the parents (and objective, blinded research observations show no difference). Parents may choose not to vaccinate to prevent autism, and instead create opportunities for potentially deadly preventable diseases to flourish. And one has only to read about the “bleach cure” to see how supposed cures can cross the line from unwise to abusive.
Autism may not even be curable. It’s highly unlikely a single compound will be found that renders the autistic mind essentially neurotypical, like lithium can regulate and even prevent the mood swings of bipolar disorder. And yet so many people invest so much time, energy, and money into making autistic people act like and think like neurotypical people – even when those efforts are harmful to the autistic people they claim they want to help. It’s like forcing deaf children to speak orally and lip read instead of encouraging sign language, or shaming a wheelchair user for not trying harder to stand and walk. Instead of hurting autistic children to try to mold them into conformity with some neurotypical standard they can never completely reach, support them by making the world more aware and accepting of neurodiversity. Help them develop social skills, adaptive and pragmatic skills, and language skills without trying to change the core of who they are, and learn to see each child for the unique and beautiful person that they are, needs and struggles and gifts all bundled up together.
O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver
Desire of the nations, Savior of all people
Come and set us free, Lord our God.
“As Joseph considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
“‘And his name shall be called Emmanuel’
“(which means, God with us)” – Matthew 1:20-23
O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart;
O Keystone of the mighty arch of man,
Come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.
In Mary’s womb, in the months leading up to the Nativity, in the dark, quiet, hiddenness, God took on human nature. The early Church fought and died for this fundamental truth: that Jesus was just as fully human as He was fully God, the two natures combining in the one person. And through this unity, established in His own body, He makes possible for us a unity with God in Him: our humanity lifted up to God’s divine presence and everlasting life in true union with the immortal. But that is not the only unity for which He paves the way, for it is also in Him that the unity of all people and people groups is made possible. For the good news of Christmas is a good news for all the people, throughout time and space, ethnicity and culture, history and hope. In Him the walls between nations and tribes and races and cliques can be fully broken down – for through Him, the Keystone, all our disparate and individual clans are held together in one glorious and mighty arch of redeemed humanity.
O come, Desire of Nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind.
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease
And fill this world with heaven’s peace.
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
The image of God as light has always resonated deeply with me. When I was seven years old, I read a book that described the gospel message as Jesus coming into our hearts as light comes into a room when the windows are opened, leaving the darkness with no place to hide, and I still remember how deeply I wanted that light to shine on me. (As far as I can remember, that was the first step on my journey of salvation, the first moment I desired to follow God.) In high school, I loved Psalm 23, despite wanting to like something not quite so well-known, just to roll that phrase over in my mouth and in my head: the valley of the shadow of death – and to know, as the first rounds of depression came, that no valley was too deep, no shadow too heavy, for God’s light to reach me.
I’ve gone through times in my life where it felt like I was walking on a path I could not see, in a world grayed out by swirling mists and darkened by heavy clouds – where the darkness, the lack of clarity and visibility, was a tangible emotional presence. And sometimes it was sorrow at the brokenness of the world, clouding my eyes, and sometimes it was a pattern of sin in my own life, and sometimes the fog was there on its own accord. And every time my spirit cried out – and I am sure the Spirit cried with me, with groans that cannot be uttered – for that light to come, shine on me, dwelling in the darkness, striving to find my way under the shadow of death.
And the Star of Christmas shines out over the earth, from the little stable in Bethlehem, and I lift up my eyes to Him from whom comes my help; and even when I struggle to see the light myself I hold fast to the knowledge that He who has promised is faithful, and that He will come again, as He came before, with the radiance and purity of light shining in to the darkness of despair.
O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven:
come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death;
and lead your captive people into freedom.
O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples;
kings stand silent in your presence;
the nations bow down in worship before you.
Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.
Just a little flower he may have seemed at first glance, to the people of Bethlehem, a poor baby born in a stable among the crowds for the census, one among thousands. But he was born of a kingly line, his roots stretching back to Jesse the father of King David, and to a greater kingdom than that of Israel as the Prince of Heaven. Coming in the night, in poverty, into the small and little-known villages of Judah under the Roman occupation – but with hosts of angels announcing his birth, and wise men traveling over continents to worship him – he was indeed a flower bright. As the old hymn goes:
Behold, a rose of Judah
From tender branch has sprung,
From Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung.
It came a flower bright
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.
Isaiah has foretold it
In words of promise sure,
And Mary’s arms enfold it,
A virgin meek and pure.
Through God’s eternal will
She bore for men a savior
At midnight calm and still.
O sacred Lord of ancient Israel,
who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush,
who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain:
come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.
I love the juxtaposition of God as Lord and Lawgiver with God as the Liberator of His people. He does not free us from sin and death so we can act with impunity and follow whatever whims our hearts desire; rather, he redeems us so that we can live righteously and create goodness and make beauty. And it is in holiness that we finally find true freedom from the slavery of sin and the tyranny of our vices.