On August 2, 1707 Mount Vesuvius erupted. Early in the morning the volcano had begun throwing out dense clouds of smoke and ash. By mid-day these clouds had thickened and spread to such an extent that the sun was hid from view, and the town of Naples was plunged into darkness. It was as dark as a winter night. The only light that was visible was the glare of the flames coming from the crater at the top of the mountain. There were also streams of boiling lava flowing down the side of the mountain. And the noise of non-stop thunder added to the terror of the inhabitants of the city below. It was feared that the burning ashes would set fire to the houses, if even they escaped being buried altogether like that of Pompeii.
At that time most of the residents of Naples were Catholic, and they knew their only hope was prayer. The whole city made their way to the tomb of the town patron, St. Januarius. His intercession was answered very quickly by God, a miracle. In just a few moments the eruption was over, the lava stopped flowing and there was no more ash. The darkness vanished, and the sun shined brightly in a cloudless sky. One moment it was very dark and the next it was very light.
Forty days after his birth Jesus is presented in the Temple. Simeon an old Jewish man had received a promise that before dying he would see the Christ. He’d lived his whole life in a darkened fallen world. But then in a moment of time he sees the promised light, one minute it’s the darkness of a fallen world and the next its divine light. And he is so overjoyed he breaks out into a song, a canticle. Looking into the face of the infant Jesus he sings out, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” And the Church prays this same canticle every night before going to bed. Reminding herself that God keeps His promises, his light shines.
Thirty three years late, after that presentation in the temple, on a hill outside the gates of Jerusalem Jesus hangs upon a cross crucified, he’s beaten, bruised, and bloodied. And next to him is a crucified criminal and he too, like Simeon, looks into the face of Jesus and sees that very same light. He sees beyond the ugliness of crucifixion into the Divine. After a life of robbery and murder, a life of dark sin, a very dark life, he sees the Divine light. It’s a moment of conversion. One moment it is very dark, and the next it is very light.
Now on that hill the devil is present as well. But when he looks at Jesus he doesn’t see the Divine, he doesn’t see the light. He sees only a naked, beaten, bruised, and bloodied man. He doesn’t see the hidden divinity. In a sense he is saying to Jesus, “In a very short time you’ll be mine. There is no escape from death.” A very dark moment, but the darkness of that Good Friday is followed by the light of Easter Sunday. Death is conquered; it doesn’t have the final word. Darkness has not overcome the light. One moment its very dark and next its very light.
For Christmas I received this icon of Jesus in a boat with two of his apostles. The tiny boat is surrounded by big dark, choppy, and stormy waves of water. One apostle cowers in the front of the boat, he’s very frightened. The other apostle stands looking at Jesus with his arms open imploring Jesus to help them. He seems to be saying, “Do something Lord! We are perishing!” “Wake up!” And there is Jesus at the back of the boat sound asleep, very peaceful. I was given this icon as a reminder that Jesus is always present, His light is always present. Even in the midst of a storm, he is present. Darkness has not overcome the light. One author put it this way, “Jesus, you are there: nothing, nothing happens, not a hair falls from our heads, without your permission. I have no right to worry. Perhaps He is sleeping in the boat, but He is there. He is always there. He is all powerful; nothing escapes His vigilance. He watches over each one of us. He is all love, all tenderness.”
Our Lord’s light is always present, it can be found at the baptismal font, in the confessional, in the tabernacle, in the baptized souls of those around us, and in prayer. May we have the faith of the people of Naples in 1707, the faith of Simeon, and the faith of the good thief. Knowing always that darkness has not overcome the light, and it never will. Good Friday darkness is always followed by Easter light!
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley