When does Night End and Day Begin?
Read Time: Approximately 6 minutes
In these dark days of December and January, before the days are noticeably longer, it is easy to dwell on all the darkness in the world. We face many problems in our world; wars, economic hardship, climate change, political divisions and disagreements of all kinds.
However, the darkness within is ever present as well. When stress and anxiety begin to rise it is tempting to start judging, blaming and pointing fingers at others we think are the problem. Ironically, just as we celebrate the coming of the “light of the world” into the world, we also have to acknowledge and face the darkness in and around us. But, focusing on the differences and disagreements with those around us does not help make the world a place of peace and harmony.
Henri Nouwen tells an old Hasidic tale that speaks about to our need to move from solitary individualism, and our own point of view, to true communion with God and our neighbours.
The rabbi asked his students: “How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?”
One of the rabbi’s students suggested: “When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?”
“No,” was the answer of the rabbi.
“It is when one can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?” asked a second student.
“No,” the rabbi said.
“Please tell us the answer then,” said the students.
“It is then,” said the wise teacher, “when you can look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize your brother or your sister. Until then it is night, and darkness is still with us.”1
This tale highlights a central point often missed in contemporary Christianity: the spiritual life is all about learning to see, love and live as Jesus did. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill”. Jesus is telling us that he has come to live the Levitical Laws more perfectly, in ways that will show us how to be “one, as he and the father are one”2. Only in this way can we truly follow the greatest law: love God with all our heart, mind and soul and our neighbour as ourselves.
The Levitical laws in the Old Testament were given to a group of people who had lived as slaves for 400 years and did not know how to live as free people. Their lives, secular and religious, had been structured by the Egyptians. Now, God needed to teach them how to think for themselves, how to worship Him in righteousness, and how to live peacefully and harmoniously with each other. It seems we still need those laws. However, Jesus simplified the laws to the one most important law: Love of God and neighbour.
The first step is to recognize our “oneness” as God’s beloved children, united by God’s great love for us. All people are God’s children, made in God’s image, whether they are like us or not, or whether we like them or not. Each person is deserving of our love and care. It doesn’t mean we have to “feel’ loving; love is a decision, not an emotion. To love is to behave in mercy and compassion; actively willing the good of the other. The laws teach how to act in merciful, humane, just and righteous ways. Jesus teaches us how to live the law more perfectly. When we live the way he shows us, we let the light in and the day can begin.
A final note: Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 how we will be judged at the end of time. It will not be about how many of the Levitical Laws we observed perfectly. Instead, we will be judged according to how well we “lived and loved” as He did. Did we feed, clothe and care for the least of our brothers and sisters. Did we live the laws more perfectly by loving God and our neighbour? Did we find enough light in ourselves to shine it out into the darkness?
1 Nouwen, Henri, Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith, New York, NY, Harper Collins, 2015.
2 The Very Reverend Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, on YouTube: https://youtu.be/2b6AfmwwLOM.