A few days back I was at the beach at sunset. It was a national holiday and so there was a larger crowd than usual of folks watching the light fall from the cliff over the beach. And so, I walked down to the sand, right to the point where the water lapped the shoreline. All that was before me was the expanse of ocean stretching out to the last light of the sun. As it began to sink into the horizon, the shape of the sun seemed to change from oval to hexagon. Horizontal bars appeared to break up the shape and the more I stared the more strange it felt to look at an image so strongly associated with one shape appear in quite a different configuration.
Apparently, the sun is one of the roundest objects ever measured. Whilst there is change in the sun’s temperature and magnetic activity during its 11-year sunspot cycle, its shape does not change at all. It is constant. And so, given that people come everyday to watch the sunset on the small patch of land at the end of our road that looks out over the Pacific Ocean, for the 11 years of each cycle over 4,000 variances of shape may be perceived when in fact no change at all has occurred.
A constant light is what each of us might be longing for, particularly when the days are shorter and the light of the day fades fast. It takes, though, a certain kind of faithfulness to be able to keep watch for the light, trusting that in spite of appearances that which we seek to behold is indeed changeless. Today, the church remembers a man who attempted through this life to wait faithfully on the light, Eric Liddell. Liddell was an athlete and missionary, made famous in the latter part of the last century by the movie Chariots of Fire, which portrayed his struggle between the opportunity for Olympic glory and the call he felt to serve as a missionary in China where he had grown up as a child to missionary parents.
Liddell’s story, like all of our stories, inhabits an ambivalence. On one hand, he offers to us an example of self-denial in his willingness to leave behind the opportunity to be one of the most decorated athletes of his generation and instead to follow the call of faith on his life and serve overseas. On the other hand, it is hard to feel as comfortable with his decision to separate from his family in order to remain in China during the Chinese war with Japan in 1941, a decision that meant that the family would never reunite, in this life at least, with Liddell dying in China four years later. Ambivalence is a constant of human life. Yet even as it may have been present in Liddell’s life, his commitment to wait on the light, even at great personal cost, is a timely reminder of the value of such constancy in our current age of continuous novelty.
Lent is that season, mostly passing unnoticed by the vast majority of people beyond sacramental church communities, when we are offered the opportunity to examine our own willingness to wait on light. They are days of wilderness learning, when the invitation is for us to remove ourselves awhile from the busyness of our daily lives, withdraw a little from the constant flow of stimuli, and learn more of what it means to wait on constancy. For Christians, such a posture opens up a more personal appreciation of some of the riches of other faith traditions: from our Abrahamic brothers and sisters within Judaism and Islam and the core conviction of the oneness and changelessness of God, to the eastern traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism and the promise of a self, emptied of distraction and attachment, that finds its oneness in a life that resonates with the eternal ‘Om’.
Stillness and light. Constancy and patient waiting. They are hallmarks of a life opened up to the possibility of the ineffable. Good lessons for Lent and for life.