Light has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Maybe it’s just the gray, overcast nature of winter in the Midwest. Every January and February I catch myself thinking “Couldn’t we just have one sunny day? I don’t even care if it’s cold.” The short days and long nights don’t help much either. When it’s dark in the morning when I wake up and dark in the evening when I leave work, inevitably I find myself longing for brighter days.
In the midst of the darkest months of the year in the northern hemisphere, we hear readings that talk a lot about light. I am not sure if that is coincidence or intentional, but it is noticeable. During Advent, we hear about being in darkness and waiting for light. At Christmas, we hear about the light coming into the world with the birth of Jesus. After Christmas, we hear about John the Baptist testifying to the light and pointing everyone to Jesus. In the weeks that follow we get told about how the responsibility is on us to help bring the light to the world. Mixed in with these stories are several variations on one of my favorite scriptural phrases:
The people in darkness have seen a great light.
I have always liked that phrase, but as I reflect on the past year, it feels even more personally relevant.
We lived through some dark periods in the last year. I was diagnosed with cancer and underwent chemotherapy. Meghann quit her job and figured out how to start her own business. Our kids were both hospitalized at different times. There were challenging periods in my job. Members of our family got pretty sick. We said farewell to my grandmother. Our plans were rearranged, postponed, and canceled. Life was pretty dark at times.
Yet, the darkness did not win.
Meghann’s business took off and became quite successful. Our kids bounced back quickly and continued to grow into happy, healthy, smart children. The challenging periods in my job ended with good outcomes. My sick family members got better and eventually resumed their normal lives. Grandma is at peace in Heaven. We were able to squeeze in a few trips and events, especially the important stuff.
Most excitingly: my hairy cell leukemia is gone.
My last chemotherapy session was in December, a few weeks before Christmas. In January, I had another bone marrow biopsy done that confirmed that my hairy cell leukemia is fully in remission. In fact, none of the indicators of hairy were there at all in my most recent biopsy. My biopsy looked like a normal healthy person. Hairy is gone. Our family and friends who have been in darkness with us, have seen a great light.
Hairy cell leukemia is a chronic cancer with no cure, so there is a very good chance that it will come back again some day. However, there is good medical reason to hope that my currently young children will be young adults before it does. In fact, my specialist at Ohio State said that he hopes to be retired before it comes back for me, and that he plans on working at least another 10 years. I hope he’s right. If hairy does come back, the doctors say that it can be treated again using the same methods just as effectively. Even more optimistically, as fast as cancer treatments are advancing right now, by the time it comes back there could be a better treatment or even a cure.
The news that hairy is gone is a great light in the darkness for us.
This contrasting of light and darkness is in many places in our scriptures. There are a lot of variations on the theme, and recently I have been contemplating how some describe light that “scatters” the darkness. It’s an interesting concept, especially to those of us accustomed to electric lighting in our homes. When I switch on the lights in a dark room in the house, the darkness vanishes almost immediately. A few shadows might remain, but the darkness appears to flee from the light. On the occasion that we have no electricity and have to rely on candles, flashlights, or lanterns, the metaphor used by the writers of our scriptures who lived in a time before electric lighting makes more sense. Candlelight appears to push aside the darkness to make way for the light. Unless it’s a super bright candle, the room is usually still dark in some areas. Wherever the light shines, though, the darkness move out of the way. The light scatters the darkness.
This metaphor is pretty accurate for life. Sometimes we are in a room that’s pretty dark. It may not feel like there is much light at all. Yet, wherever the light shines, no matter how dim, the darkness does not win. That light might be hearing from an old friend or an unexpected smile from a stranger or the unwavering love of a spouse or a little reassuring God moment along the way. Whatever the source, these little candles of light in our ordinary lives illumine the dark rooms we all experience.
Around Christmastime this year, I heard a new song that has really stuck with me through the end of my chemo journey. It’s called “Christ Our Light Has Come” by Steve Angrisano and Curtis Stephan. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=456l42UcmKo) It’s very singable, and the lyrics are fantastic. Part of the way through the first verse the song tells us
True light has arrived to illumine our lives So often beset by the darkness
My life was often beset by darkness in 2019. True light has arrived? When I stop and think about it, that’s what Christmas is all about. The composers point this out to us pretty clearly in the refrain that follows:
Cast aside all your fear and dread, Come follow the light to Bethlehem. The way of salvation revealed to all: Christ, our light, has come.
Darkness doesn’t win. That’s what Christmas is about, and that’s what the whole Christian faith is about. Christ, our light, has come.
It is probably not by accident that this song found its way into both my ear and my heart in December and January this year. For several weeks, it kept popping up for me. When I first heard it, I played it for myself and found myself praying it quietly in the middle of my day. At a friend’s request, I later shared it for some of our small church community during our reflection on the Feast of Epiphany. A week later I felt moved to sing and play the song as I was leading the music at the closing Mass of our parish’s Men’s Retreat. I continued to hum it and sing it to myself for a number of weeks, well into January.
In the middle of January, I was scheduled to have my biopsy done. Going into the day, I was admittedly uncertain. I had many reasons to believe that the test would bring the good news that hairy was gone. Yet, on some level I was still doubtful. The cancer might still be there, and I had to brace for that possibility. The test was on a Monday, and we would get the results on a separate trip to Columbus the following Thursday. As has been our normal for the last year, the day was full of surprises. In the very early hours of Monday morning, my son woke up violently sick to his stomach. With him unable to go to preschool as planned, Meghann and I scrambled to adjust our plans as the sun rose. Talking through our very limited logistical options given the necessary driving time and the few hours remaining before my appointment, we decided that I would drive myself to Columbus, my mom would meet me there to stay with me, and Meghann would stay home with our sick son. Monday would just be a test day anyway. Thursday was the more important day. Meghann bravely agreed to the plan, even though it clearly hurt her not to be able to join me in Columbus.
Having a drive by myself that long-anticipated Monday morning gave me some time to converse with God. Hairy has enabled me to be better at these conversations, so I found myself just admitting to Him how I felt. I really hoped I was cancer-free. I wanted to hear that I was healthy. I needed help facing whatever I was going to find out later that week, and I really hoped that our son would be well enough that Meghann could come on Thursday. I was exhausted after 9 months of dealing with hairy. I just wanted everything to calm down a bit. After I had said my piece to God, I quite suddenly got a response back. It was that song again. Cast aside all your fear and dread. Christ, our light, has come.
Living with cancer is darkness. Having kids in the hospital is darkness too, as is taking care of sick family members, dealing with significant career stress, saying goodbye to loved ones, and a whole host of other things. Yet, we all have real hope. It’s the message of Christmas and the message of Christianity.
In our small corner of the world, there is less darkness than their was last year. I can now claim the title of “cancer survivor.” Light scatters the darkness and illumines our life. The darkness in our life doesn’t win.
Our Light has come.
Thanks for sharing. So thankful for your healing and all the blessings of this past year. All the time. …..God is good!
“The light in the tunnel is just another runaway train.” – – After the rain, Nickleback
Thanks for this, for the light.