Most of you know that I enjoy photographing nature — both wildlife and landscapes. That interest really began here at St. Dunstan’s as I tried to capture photos of God’s creatures who share this property with us.
I soon realized I was going to need a better camera, better lenses, and a lot of instruction. So about 10 years ago I began taking classes, both workshops here in town and trips with professional photographers.
I still remember the first thing the instructor said in the very first class I took on nature and landscape photography, something every instructor I have had has repeated many times.
“A nature photographer must be a student of the light.”
An awareness and knowledge of light can make all the difference in a photograph.
Professional photographer Peter Watson writes in his book Capturing the Light, “Light’s quality, quantity, direction and color dominate the thoughts and actions of the outdoor photographer.
“We must learn to understand it, appreciate it, anticipate its fleeting whimsicality, and above all, we must learn to use it wisely. Photographers must learn to become masters of light.
“Photographs can suddenly appear as light plays across the hills and valleys, and patience and observation can result in rewarding images.”
That lesson was brought home to me in a dramatic way this fall on the first photography trip I took about 10 years ago, as we got early to capture the sunrise in the Grand Tetons.
It is no secret that I am not an early morning person, and when the alarm went off at 4 a.m. that first day I wondered why in the world I had signed up for this.
It was still dark when we reached our destination, setting up our cameras in front of the dramatic rise of the mountains. As we watched, the sky gradually grew lighter, then the first hint of pink hit the clouds.
Then the first light hit the mountain top, turning the gray stone pale pink, then brighter and brighter until the entire top half of the mountain looked like it was ablaze with lava.
Within 10 minutes the sun was up, the light had moved on, and the mountains were back to gray again. If my teacher had not been a student of the light it would have been so easy to miss the whole spectacular scene.
I experienced the same phenomenon at sunset on my recent trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. The landscapes were always beautiful, but they became glowingly alive in the light of the setting sun.
I’ve learned other things about light, too. Cloudy and overcast days often provide some of the best light for photography. Too much light can be overwhelming. Many times a little bit of light is all you need.
My teacher’s statement all those years ago is true. Good photographers must be students of the light.
As I read the light-infused prayers and scripture for this first Sunday of Advent it occurred to me that good Christians should also be students of the light.
“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” the first prayer of the new church year says, echoing the reading we hear today from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.
“Let us walk in the light of the Lord,” says the scripture reading from Isaiah.
And in today’s gospel reading, Jesus urges his followers to keep watch during the night.
We begin Advent, the season of preparation for the coming of the Messiah, much like I began that first morning of my photography trip – waiting in darkness for the light that seems so long in arriving.
That is the kind of waiting that the people of Israel were in during a time of exile, a time when God seemed far away or absent altogether.
Isaiah reminds the people of past times of darkness. He recalls that when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God also seemed absent. But it was in that time of darkness that God led them out of slavery and into the promised land.
Recalling those past experiences gives the people hope in a time that seems hopeless – a hope that allows a people living in darkness the capability of imagining a time when God’s light will shine forth – a time when weapons of war and oppression will be used for peace and prosperity, a time when swords are beaten into plough shares and spears into pruning hooks.
That vision allowed the people to wait with hope in a situation that once brought nothing but despair. That hope is the beginning of light in the darkness.
Advent is a time when we are invited to explore and confront the darkness around and within us.
We live in a culture that abhors darkness – both literally and figuratively. Few places are ever totally without light.
We also try to deny the darkness of our lives – our grief, our anxieties, our pains, our loneliness and despair, our fear of sickness and death. We go to great lengths to keep these things hidden, to ward off the darkness that we fear so much.
Theologian Douglas John Hall asserts that the task of Christian theology is to help people enter into that darkness.
“It’s not to offer them refuge from it,” he says, “but rather to help provide a way into the darkness.
“Of course, darkness is not the last thing that faith has to pronounce about life in this world,” Hall adds. “But the light to which the Christian gospel bears witness in every age presupposes conscious exposure to the darkness of that age.
“After all, it is a light for that darkness. Whoever refuses to enter the darkness can have no glimpse of this light.”
Scripture tells us that the only type of darkness that faith needs to fear is that unacknowledged darkness, the unnerving and shadowy blur on the edges of our consciousness that we can spend so much spiritual energy ignoring.
It is out of those blurred edges that we carry out the works of darkness that Paul tells us to cast off – works of prejudice and hatred, works of fear and anxiety, works of greed and selfishness.
It is not by ignoring those dark places that we cast them off, but by acknowledging them and holding them up to the light.
One of my favorite books by mystery writers Louise Penney’s is entitled How the Light Gets In. One scene in particular seems to. appropriate for this first Sunday of Advent.
In it, the police inspector, a city dweller, is out in the deep darkness of rural Canada. At first the darkness overwhelms him with anxiety.
“But then he looked up, and slowly the stars appeared. Orion’s Belt. The Big Dipper. The North Star. And millions and millions of other lights. All very, very clear now, and only now.
“The light that is only visible in the dark.”