A light has gone out in the house next door. The elderly gentleman who lived there was a friend as well as a neighbor. A light in his porch always assured us that he was well. I really miss that light each night now as darkness falls. In some small way a light has gone out in the world too, because he is no longer in it. A new novel by Ingrid Hill, Ursula Under, also tells of the sudden and traumatic extinguishing of a light. A little girl from a poor immigrant family falls down a disused mine shaft while on vacation. The emergency services are alerted, and the incident soon becomes coast-to-coast news. The coverage of the rescue provokes a comment from one viewer that the cost of the operation is much too high for a child she describes as a half-breed trailer trash kid.
The novel then uncovers this particular child’s ancestral story. As each receding generation is introduced, we see just how amazing it is that this unique person ever came to be, and what a splendid, unguessed-at story she carries within her, ranging across the world and through all kinds and classes of forebears.
What is true for little Ursula is true for every person on the planet. The stories that have been woven together in the making of each of us are stupendous. The trail of our becoming who and how and where we are is mind-blowing, as though each of us were indeed individually hand-woven by a loving creator. Trailer trash turns out to have been uniquely and lovingly crafted not just through her own few short years, but through eons of human joys and sorrows. Such treasure is never dispensible.
Remembering my neighborand reading about the supreme value in this small child and in every other human beingI was reminded of an incident some years ago in a half-forgotten war cemetery deep in central Germany. We were searching for the grave of a young boy, who died in the last battles around Berlin at the end of World War II. He was 15 when he was killed by a Soviet tank while trying to defend his homeland with a stick.
We found his grave, stark and silent among many thousands more, and bare, except for one small detail. A tiny, sky-blue egg had fallen from a bird’s nest in an overhanging tree. The shell lay empty and broken on the grave, the shell of a bird that would never sing, never fly, never become what God had dreamed it might be. And I wept for the boy who would also never grow up. A unique and indispensable part of God’s dream lay in the earth, beneath that broken shell. And human inhumanity had dispensed with it.
This month, on both sides of the Atlantic, we remember the millions who now lie in cold graves throughout the world because they were dispatched to the killing fields. Every one of them has a story as long and as rich as little Ursula’s. Every one of them is priceless in God’s eyes. We remember them in sorrow and in shame, as well as with the pride and reverence they deserve. And we remember not only those who died, but those who must live on, carrying the trauma in their bodies, minds and souls, those whose stories have been so brutally disfigured by the kind of experience no human being should ever know.
Yet God’s dream is greater than anything we can range against it. God’s light has shone in the darkness and the darkness has not extinguished it. How does this make any sense under the shadow of all our war-mongering and under the cloud of all our loss and grieving? What hope might there be for kindling light, rather than extinguishing it? And can one little light make any difference in the darkness?
On my first visit to New York City, I went to the top of the Empire State Building late one dark night. When the elevator reached the topmost viewing platform, I stepped out and gazed down on a breathtakingly beautiful view. I wasn’t the only one to be awed by the sight. A group of youngsters who had chattered all the way up immediately fell into wide-eyed silence as they stepped out onto the platform. Everyone present was amazed by the sea of beauty sparkling at our feet. The city was alive with light.
And then I paused to reflect on how that spectacle had come about. It was not some expensive show, put on to draw the crowds. It was simply the result of millions of ordinary people switching on the lights in their own apartments. None of them would have thought for a moment that they were contributing to a vision that could take one’s breath away.
One of the best-loved wartime songs in Britain (so I am told) was Keep the Home Fires Burning. We do this whenever we generate a spark of love and warmth and tolerance in our own small circles of influence. It may seem like almost nothing at the time, but it may be the most important and life-changing thing we will ever do and the most powerful way both to live ourselves and to honor the broken victims of war. One small light can kindle a fire that changes the world.
God’s vast visions always begin with the anawim, the little ones, as the Gospel keeps reminding us. We are the little people, like Ursula in the story and the boy in Berlin who is buried beneath an empty shell. The light of life is given to us. When we light a candle, we say to the darkness: I beg to differ.