The cathedral congregation waits in rapt attention, the electric
lights are dimmed and then extinguished, the organist comes to
the end of J S Bach’s Nun Kom der Heiden Heiland. The ancient
gothic spaces are now still, though packed with more than 1,500
people, attentive, silent and expectant. In the silence and the
darkness a single, flickering candle is lit. Everyone in the
cathedral can see it, tall and towering on its magnificent stand.
The cathedral choristers at the far end of the cathedral sing
Palestrina’s setting of ancient words from scripture: ‘I look from
afar’. And the Advent Procession at Salisbury Cathedral begins.
This processional liturgy is called ‘From Darkness to Light’ and
in the next hour and a quarter three thousand candles will be lit
gradually from the the single Advent light. It’s a wonderful
liturgical dance by candle light as the choir and the clergy process
through the building, responding with as much imagination as
they can muster to the words with which St John begins his
This was the true light that enlightens every man and woman who comes into
the world - the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not
This liturgy of darkness to light is celebrated magnificently in
church with all the creative resources that a great cathedral can
bring to bear. But this is not a churchy service. It is about the
world we live in. However prettily we illuminate the cathedral
with the flickering flames of several thousand candles we cannot
escape or ignore the fact that the darkness is real. The world we
live in that God saw that he had made so good and was bathed in
the light he had created - the sun to rule the day and the moon to
rule the night - this world of ours is nevertheless a dark world. It
is dark because we have made it so - not because God has
abandoned us; not because sun, moon and stars have been
eclipsed; but because we so often have chosen a dark way.
Black holes are not confined to the world of astro physics. We
occupy dark matter and are easily sucked into the moral
equivalent of black holes. As Jesus says in St John’s gospel:
this is the judgement - that light has come into the world and men and
women loved darkness rather than light... for everyone who does evil hates the
light, and does not come to the light, lest their deeds should be exposed.
BUT ..... we wouldn’t be sitting here in church unless there was a
but .... the darkness of our world is not the last word.
‘The light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world’
is how St John begins his gospel. It is the heart of the Christian
narrative. When a baby’s birth is celebrated at Christmas we can
readily believe that all is not lost: all is not darkness. A babe is
born - joy has come into our dark world.
But that joy - that blessedness is how the gospel puts it - lived out
by Jesus, shared with his companions and put into practice in the
values and the compassionate, self-giving love which Jesus
lavished on all whom he met - that blessedness, that light that
had come into the world was short lived. Light had indeed come
into the world, it is true - but the darkness had overcome it. Sadly
there are no buts. Darkness prevails - the lights have gone out.
It was just over a hundred years ago in 1914 that the British
Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey looked down from his
windows in Whitehall and saw the lamp lighter lighting the
London street lamps. He made the observation that has since
become famous ‘ The lamps are going out all over Europe. We
shall not see them lit again in our life time’. There seemed to him
no way of avoiding the tsunami that was about to engulf not
only Europe but the whole world. The Great War was about to
begin. The world was to be plunged into darkness: the lights were
indeed going out.
In the Holy week texts you have on your sheets is a poem by Wilfred
Owen, who was killed just a fortnight before the war ended. In it he
described the futility and the darkness of the war despite the healing
power of the warming sun. It’s called Futility.
Move him into the sun--
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds--
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all
That poem records events which happened in the life time of
people who are still alive today. That war was called the Great
War - though with what extraordinary irony can the English
language be stretched to describe that, or any war, as Great. This
holy week which we celebrate now, was traditionally called Great
Week. And at the heart of this week is a particular day we call
Good - Good Friday. By what extraordinary irony can the
English language be stretched to call this week Great, and that
day Good. On that bleak day, in this bleak week, goodness was
rooted out; and the lights not only in Europe, but in all the
world, went out for all time, for all people in all places.
That is what we are commemorating in this ancient office of
Tenebrae. Tenebrae which is the Latin for darkness or shadows
was the name given to the Office of Morning Prayer as it was
celebrated during the Triduum - the last three days of Great
Week. Although the Office was Morning Prayer it came to be
celebrated in the Middle Ages in the evening - I guess because
they wanted the sense of the encompassing darkness of eventide
to give poignancy to their understanding that during this week -
the lights were indeed going out. And not just lights - but the
light, the true light, was being extinguished.
And just as at Advent candles are lit to remind us that in Jesus
Christ the light has come into the world which the darkness can
never overcome, so today we practice what a pianist would call
contrary motion. The lights we had lit with so much hope in
December now in the spring are being extinguished. One by one
the lights of hope that illuminated our world to celebrate a baby’s
birth - no ordinary baby but God’s Son - the Light of the World.
One by one those lights are being put out. And we come to the
point where love, hope and goodness are hung out to dry, and a
man dies - the lights have gone out. We are left in the darkness
we have made of God’s world; enveloped in the hateful darkness
we have made out of the love that God so extravagantly poured
I talked about Edward Grey’s famous comment a hundred year’s
ago at the beginning of the Great War. Longer ago than that -
indeed 400 years ago last year a man died whom many of us
regard as the greatest poet and playwright the world has ever
known - certainly the English speaking world. I mean of course
William Shakespeare. It was Shakespeare who in his plays -
especially his tragedies - described the darkness of our world, as
well as describing the moments of human courage, goodness and
compassion, that have illuminated the darkness and given hope
to our world and to our humanity. In one of Shakespeare’s
tragedies, Othello, the great Venetian general Othello is smitten
with jealousy, because his lieutenant Iago, has wickedly planted
false evidence which suggests that Othello’s wife, Desdemona,
has been unfaithful to him. Othello jumps to this conclusion, as
Iago intended he should, and consumed with jealousy he plans
his wife’s death. Though still loving her he is driven by his inner
demons, and decides to smother her in her bed. And then he says
She must die, or she’ll destroy more men.
(He snuffs out a candle, and then continues)
Put out the light, and then put out the light.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me; but once put out thy light
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume.
Desdemona wakes, but despite her protestations of innocence
and despite her pleading for her life, Othello, demented with
jealousy, murders her. He puts out her light. A candle he can light again; but he cannot
restore the life he has ended. Here on stage, in the particular
context of a cruel murder, the moral darkness of our world is
enacted. Candles can be relit, seemingly dispelling the darkness.
But the darkness into which Othello is plunged can never be
escaped. He is plunged into the moral darkness of our human
What we do this evening is recognise that the darkness that
engulfs one of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes is a darkness that
enfolds our humanity. Tonight, one by one, we snuff out the
candles of hope we lit with so much confidence before
Christmas. The light has indeed shone briefly in the darkness, but
the darkness has finally overcome it.
We are alone, in the darkness, out in the cold, in the silence. Each
candle represents a family killed in Raqqa, in Syria; every candle
represents the people killed in the world’s capital cities, or tourist
resorts in some mass shooting or bomb outrage; every candle
represents a refugee child washed up on the sea shore trying to
escape war or famine or persecution; every candle we extinguish
is a family dying of starvation in Ethiopia, because of global
warming and consequent famine. And as we survey the endless
global darkness, we see, even in our relatively tranquil lives, that
the shadows are lengthening, as darkness falls around us. Like
Othello we have to admit, despite all our inventiveness and our
I know not where is that Promethean heat That can our light relume
Plunged in darkness as we soon shall be, with nowhere to turn
and with no light to direct our steps - there is sill a BUT. At the
end of this service, one light remains - we may not see it for it
will be hidden from view; entombed you might say. The darkness
is real and on Good Friday we will be reminded just how real the
darkness is - when love and hope and faith are hung out to dry,
jeered at, ridiculed, derided. When goodness, beauty and truth
can be so cruelly mistreated what hope is there for us?
- why should God go on caring when we care so little?
- why should he share his light with us when we so carelessly
snuff it out?
- why should God empty himself for our sake when we fill
ourselves and adorn ourselves with things of no worth?
Why? because God loves us, and nothing, but nothing, that we
can do will ever change that reality. That is the light that comes
into the world - God’s love for us. We prefer darkness to light,
as Jesus himself recognised, but nevertheless the light, his love,
shines on in the darkness (even though for a moment that lightgiving
love is hidden from our sight) and the darkness will
never, ever overcome it.
Remember Psalm 139, which to read is worth a hundred
If I go up into heaven thou art there
if I go down to hell thou art there also;
if I take the wings of the morning
and alight in the uttermost parts of the west
even there shall God’s hand lead me and his right hand shall hold me. For
the darkness is no darkness with God,
but the light is as clear as the day;
the darkness and the light to Him are both alike.