Since my early teens, I’ve been a fan of the American painter Edward Hopper. Lots of you will have seen his work in innumerable prints and reproductions. His most famous painting is called Nighthawks. It’s the one where you can see a couple enjoying a cup of coffee through the expansive window of an all-night cafe. Most of Hopper’s work is either in private collections or in the Whitney Museum of modern Art in New York. I thought it would be a long time, if ever, before I ever got to see the paintings in the flesh; or should I say in the canvas. But in the autumn of 2004, Tate Modern put on a major exhibition of Hopper’s work. And so finally I got to see the works I had admired for so long in reproduction, as they really were.
It was a memorable visit. Several things struck me about the paintings, that you could only see by seeing them up close. I’d heard it said and read it many times that Hopper was a poor draughtsman. I’d always resisted that idea. But seeing the canvases, I could deny it no longer. His drawing was definitely poor at times.
On the other hand, the strength of his composition was all the more apparent. But most striking of all was something that reproductions had hidden away. It was to do with Hopper’s treatment of darkness and light.
Lots of Hopper’s compositions have this dark, foreboding space within them. Those are often contrasted with the brilliance of the daylight in the East Coast of America where he lived and worked. When you see these paintings as a poster or in a book, the dark colours look solid and impenetrable and the light at its most brilliant is nothing more than the whiteness of the paper on which the image is printed. But when you see Hopper’s original canvases, something startling is there before you: Hopper’s darks are thin. The blacks, blues and greys that look so solid when reproduced, are just layers of thin turpentine washes. It’s as if they are veils through which the light might break through at any moment.
And the light.
The light is solid, thick with heavy, impasto paint. Even where it only touches the edge of a doorframe, the corner of a wall, it is a solid, tangible, real presence. It literally reaches off the flat surface and out into space. It extends out of the imagined world of Hopper’s pictures and into the reality of the viewer.
Those pictures that had seemed for so long to me to be about the proximity and presence of darkness, seemed suddenly to be about the overwhelming reality of light.
Light and darkness are of course real things in our experience. And they are real things that Hopper is representing in his paintings. But I think these paintings, just like our readings today, are about more than just sunlight and shadow. Light and darkness are metaphors for our human experience. They stand for hope and despair. And so often, it seems to us in our daily lives and in the world around us that it is the darkness that is real and solid and the light that is a thin illusion.
That is how the Judaeans living in exile in Babylon felt. And it is how the Jewish people living under the Roman occupation felt. These are the realities of darkness that our readings address today. But they have a wider vision too. They speak to every human person and society in every place and time.
The darkness is all around us and the darkness penetrates our being: the darkness of despair is within us. It seems to us more real, more present than the light of hope. That seems to us, especially if we find ourselves in the grip of that terrible illness of depression, like a faraway illusion, a vain yearning. The darkness can feel overwhelming. Hope can evaporate. Even the smoldering wick is eventually dim and cold.
But it is the darkness that is an illusion. It is the veil that hides the deeper and more real reality of Eternity. And in our readings tonight, we are reminded that the Real has broken through. The veil has been ripped open and shown up the darkness for what it is.
The brilliance of God’s love has broken through the darkness of human cruelty and the bitterness of despair. And so it is that great light, and not darkness, which is more real. There is nothing in our lives, our world, our universe that is so bleak, so dark, that it cannot be transformed if we open our eyes to the reality of God’s love.
We do not have to do escape from the darkness by our own efforts before we can see it. The light comes to us in the midst of our darkness. It shines among us. It shines on us and reveals that tarnished as we may be, we are made to reflect it. Because the light comes to us as one of us. We see the light of the eternal God in a human face.
He didn’t appear in the brilliant glory of a Roman emperor, or a Judaean monarch. His appearing showed up those fake lights for what they were: the deepest darkness. The brilliance of God’s glory illuminated our most fragile humanity. He came to us as a baby, born to refugee parents in desperate poverty.
And so here, where the darkness seems deepest, most threatening, most ready to overwhelm us, here is where the light is shown to be most real, most present. Here is where the brilliance of the deeper reality of heaven breaks through the thin veil of darkness. And all the blinding glory of heaven’s appearing to shepherds on a hillside is but a faint reflection of the Great Light that those same shepherds saw when they encountered the newborn baby tenderly wrapped and laid in a feed trough.
Just like the thick presence of light broke into my consciousness when I saw those Hopper paintings in the flesh, so we encounter the eternal reality of God in the flesh in Jesus – born in Bethlehem, living in Nazareth, dying and rising in Jerusalem. What has been mere reproduction, poor copy, faint echo, pale reflection in the words of prophets, recorded on scrolls, recited in religious ritual is now before us: living, breathing, dying, rising.
God. Is. With. Us.
But that was all long ago.
The exhibition is over. The paintings have been taken down, packed away, shipped back to the place from which they came. I must rely once again on reproduction and memory.
And what of Christ’s advent? What of God’s coming into the world? Joseph and Mary, shepherds and magi encountered his real presence. They could see him, smell him, hear his breathing, touch his delicate skin. Are we to live only with that scene’s reproduction in the words of evangelists and imaginations of artists? Are we to live only with the handed down memories of others? Or can we too know the Real Presence of that Great Light in the midst of our darkness too?
We can know that light as a living presence, as the true reality in our lives each day. For he lives still.
The Great Light has shone in the darkness, and though it did its utmost to extinguish it, the darkness could not overcome it. Even the grave could not extinguish him. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. We look for Christ’s coming in future days.
But we look for his coming today. We look for his coming in our hearts, by faith. And we look for his coming among us as we break bread and pour wine.
The Real Presence of God’s unquenchable light is among us. We know it as we see it reflected in each other’s eyes as we gather around the table to which he himself invited us. We ask him again to be born within us and among us tonight:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!