On a Friday night in early April, a rare occurrence took place on the banks of Lake Superior. The beacon on Minnesota’s Split Rock lighthouse lit up the sky for a few hours, an intentional offering of light—hope amid significant darkness.
Lighthouses are, for the most part, historic sites now. Places we visit and images we put on postcards and Facebook covers. But at one time, they provided a vital role in saving lives and ensuring the flow of trade in this region and others.
During the shipping season, from spring to December, the light guided ships and their precious cargo, both men and freight, safely to port. Lighthouse keepers maintained watch night and day, often separated from their families for months at a time. This was especially true at Split Rock, which was only accessible by boat from the time it was commissioned in 1910 until the Lake Superior Highway began to make vehicle access possible in 1924.
The Split Rock beacon rarely shines now, only a few times a year, mostly to commemorate anniversaries like the remembrance of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald each November. Thus, this simple act that Friday night was indeed noteworthy. It not only brought light to the darkness of our current moment in time but reminded us of the history of lighthouses—signals of hope for weary travelers and anxious seafarers.
It is Easter, our celebration of the paschal feast continues. And the paschal candle, lit in our parishes at the Great Vigil, remains burning when our communities gather for prayer, whether in person or virtually. That candle represents a long history, like the lighthouses which grace the shores of the Great Lakes. A history of watch kept in the night outside of a tomb, of light breaking into the darkness through churches in history—churches standing as beacons of hope for communities experiencing plagues, pestilence, and pandemics, of war and acts of terror and significant economic hardship.
The light of Christ which we keep burning represents so much more than this moment itself, as challenging and frightening and unsettling as this moment is.
In normal circumstances, I would now tell you that the light of Christ, represented in our paschal candle, cannot remain in our churches. I would argue that it is up to all of us to bring it out into the world. Up to us to take it into the neighborhood around our parishes and beyond. But that call seems challenging now, doesn’t it, with directives from government and church officials rightly asking all of us to stay home. It might seem, then, that our call, our Christian duty, to bring the light of Christ to the world is on hold right now.
But such an assumption is far from reality. Indeed, staying home right now is truly an act of hope. As Catholics, we hold firm to the notion that we are called to do everything we can to bring about the common good. And our efforts to flatten the curve—as painful and disruptive as those efforts may be—are one way in which we can ensure the health and safety of our neighbors. It’s not about us. It’s about them.
By staying home, washing our hands, and practicing social distancing and wearing masks when we do need to venture out, we are bringing light to the darkness of this pandemic.
We also can bring the light of Christ to the world by taking time to reflect on what this moment might be teaching us. Throughout each day, we encounter the reality that so much of what we usually take for granted is not possible right now.
We have been reminded of what is truly important in our lives. Time spent with family and friends that don’t live with us; hugs and touch and physical intimacy; gatherings celebrating milestones in our lives, such as birthdays, baptisms, engagements, weddings, and even funerals.
And, for those of us who practice our shared faith, perhaps we took for granted the opportunity to celebrate the sacraments. We became used to open doors and full pews and a table set for all of us. We are, after all, a people rooted in community and a people deeply rooted in the Eucharist.
Our continued fast from the sacraments gives us pause, a moment to recognize how vital the community we are a part of—and the altar we gather around—is to all of us.
Bringing the light of Christ to the world can happen through a new perspective in the days ahead, especially when our lives begin to return to some sense of what they were before. By prioritizing those things that are truly important, and setting aside those things that distract or distance us from our priorities, the light we carry can shine brighter. The darkness is already passing away, and the true light is already shining.
The men who kept watch throughout the night at Split Rock and lighthouses like it sacrificed much to save lives. Today we can honor their memory by honoring the lives of those on the frontlines of the response to this pandemic. Doctors and nurses and other medical professionals, too, are often separated from their families. So are grocery clerks, stockroom workers, and butchers; hospice chaplains and other ministers; truck drivers, postal workers, police officers, and firefighters; sanitation workers, cooks, takeout preparers, and delivery drivers.
May they be regarded in history as they genuinely are, heroes. Regardless of what faith they hold, or whether they hold any faith at all, they are bringing light into the darkness, and hope in a time of despair.
I have no idea what tomorrow might bring, or how long our separation from the people we care about the most might last. I pray that it will end sooner than later. But this I do know. We are Easter people. We have walked through darkness before, and we will walk in darkness again. But we also know that darkness is only temporary, that the light which God provides shall come, even if the flame is just a flicker.
May the light of Christ surround us—now, and in the days ahead.
Image: Casey Horner on Unsplash