Story and photos by Fr. Salvador Gonzalez, OMI
There was a popular motel chain that used to end all its commercials with the phrase, “We’ll leave the lights on for you,” implying that after a long day of travel or work the customer should not walk into a dark room, that everyone should be greeted with light. Light is a sign of arriving, of being home, of safety and security.
Darkness has taken on a whole new meaning this past year for people around the globe afflicted and affected by the COVID-19 virus. For so many, the pandemic has brought them to experience darkness in the form of the loss of a loved one, of being quarantined at home, of losing their job and economic hardship. Many suffer because of the uncertainty of not knowing how or when the pandemic and its consequences will end. People are searching for hope, for signs of life and of resurrection.
As Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, we are not strangers to situations like these. We were born for situations like this. When St. Eugene de Mazenod was a young man, the Church and its members had been utterly destroyed by the French Revolution. People lived in fear, epidemics surged all around, at one-point Eugene de Mazenod became deathly ill with the same virus infecting the prisoners to whom he was ministering. This near-death illness did not deter Eugene from his ministry, on the contrary, it catapulted him to call others to join him in his mission of bringing people a message of hope. Through their preaching, Eugene de Mazenod and the Oblates reminded people that they were precious in the eyes of God, that they were rescued by the love of Christ, that they were brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ and that Jesus was Savior to them.
For the last 51 years, the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois has welcomed pilgrims and visitors from across state lines to the annual Way of Lights. This event is more than just a light display. It is a proclamation of the Gospel through lights.
Through the nearly two-mile drive, visitors are inspired by the presentation of the Gospel announcement of the birth of the Messiah through colorful light sculptures of angels, shepherds, candles, stars and even the town of Bethlehem during their journey through the lights. The journey culminates in the announcement of the birth of Jesus at the stable in Bethlehem housed at the Lourdes Grotto.
Often at the Grotto, visitors take the time to get out of their cars and light a candle, take a picture with the life-sized Holy family, say a prayer and ask for a blessing the Oblate on duty for their family, vehicles, even their pets. Families both young and old make the Way of Lights a family tradition.
St. Eugene de Mazenod charged the oblates to leave nothing un-dared for the Gospel. There are many light displays in the area, yet only the Shrine tells the story of the birth of the “Light of the world:” Jesus Christ, to everyone who drives into the Shrine grounds, to enjoy and be inspired by the Way of the lights.
The outdoor light display is free and open to the public nightly from 5-9 pm now through January 2, 2020