February 9, 2003, 5th SUNDAY OF THE YEAR- CHAPTER
"I have come as a light into the world" Jesus said, (John 12:45) taking up one of the more striking themes of the Bible. In the first lines of scripture we read that the first words spoken by God had as their subject light. GOD SAID: "LET THERE BE LIGHT"; AND THERE WAS LIGHT. AND GOD SAW THAT THE LIGHT WAS GOOD . (Genesis 1:3). Thus the very first element of material creation, according to the Biblical account, was light. This suggests that God has a special relation to the dynamic substance that is named light in our English language. The Greek text has NvH (fos), a root that occurs in many English words, such as photograph (literally, written by light), phosphorus ("bearing light"). The role of light in the created world continues to be fundamental, as the author of Genesis already appreciated, but, of course, the reason the theme is so prominent in Scripture, is theological. As we observe in the opening lines of the Bible and later in the prophets: God is the sole creator of light and of darkness; there is no other but He who created the whole universe as a cosmos, that is to say, a beautiful, ordered whole. Light became a symbol of interior experience, especially of contact with the divine. But it also signifies the sense of understanding: "Now I see" when we gain fuller or fresh grasp of some obscure matter. Light may also be used in reference to taking a moral direction in life. One curious feature of the Genesis account is that light is created on the first day as if nothing else could occur in the absence of this luminosity; however, the sun, moon and stars a are said to have been created only on the fourth day. Sceptics pointed to this fact as an argument that discredited the Biblical version since, they maintained, all visible light emanates from the sun and other celestial bodies. Of course, the Genesis account is not intended to be a scientific theory of the origins of the cosmos, as defenders of Scripture readily observed, so that this furnishes no valid proof for their claim. Now though there is further defense, one which could assert that the intuition of the inspired writer put him in more profound relation to the material world than his detractors stand. For recently science itself has come to the view that light in the form of its constituent photons did exist long before the sun and stars were formed, as radiation within the primitive cosmic soup resulting from "The Big Bang". It remained invisible, however, until the tremendous force of primitive gravity was reduced sufficiently as matter was dispersed, thus permitting the photons to escape into the newly created cosmic spaces. A second curiosity arising from the nature of light is the fact that it is the only subatomic particle that can be seen by the naked eye! This feature would seem to make light somehow anticipate the eventual creation of the human person; it certainly establishes a more direct relation between man and light, making this latter intrinsic to the human condition even on the level of the senses. Important as light is in the exterior world for the good of our human life, and as a sign of God's goodness and power, it is above all as a symbol of spiritual realities that light holds a place of honor in Scripture. So prominent is this theme throughout the whole of Scripture that Father Camelot can plausibly affirm that "One could even make the account of the history of salvation by taking this theme as the leading thread, especially if there is added to it the related biblical themes and terms such as glory, fire, shine, see and the rest (Dict. De Spiritualité. IX s.v. Lumière, 1142)." Psalm 36 had already spoken of God in terms that associate light and life and suggests that divine life manifests itself in action that leads to illumination with all its attendant blessings: "You are a fountain of life, and in your light we shall see light." St. Augustine commented on this verse with all the enthusiasm of his ardent love of beauty.
Earlier while he was still a catechumen at Milan, Augustine had a profound experience of the light that revealed to him something of Gods great holiness and purity. This interior vision brought him further along the path of conversion though it was not enough to satisfy him for long. It was only after baptism and undergoing the greater influence of Scripture that he found the peace that came from communion with God. He describes this decisive event in these words.
"In you is the fountain of life." He himself is fountain and light, for in his light we shall see light... Run to the fountains, long for the fountains of water. In God is the fountain of life, a fountain that never ceases to flow, in his light is a light that nothing can make obscure... The inner eye prepares itself to see this light; the inner thirst burns to draw from this fountain (cited in Dict. De Spiritualité. IX s.v. Lumière, 1156).
St. Augustine was not the first to appreciate that light describes better than other images the state of soul that arises from contact with God under various aspects. That this theme was developed importantly already in the second century by Catholic theologians does not come as a surprise in view of the broad use it enjoyed in the Hebrew Bible, and especially considering the stirring words in Second Isaiah: "The nations will walk in your light, and kings in the brightness of your dawn (60.3)." Accordingly, Christ himself is referred to by St. Justin as "the light of the nations"( cf. Dict. De Spiritualité. IX s.v. Lumière, 1149 ff. for this and the following references). This same author records a prayer request made to him by an old man who asks that "the doors of light might be opened to him." That is his way of referring to baptism which Justin and many who followed him called simply "Enlightenment". The reason given for this preferred title he explains is that it enlightens the mind. Clement of Alexandria in the next century, adds that it has this name of "Enlightenment"because it permits us to "contemplate the beautiful and holy light of salvation" and so favors contemplation by virtue of the Holy Spirit whom we receive through it. Gregory of Nazianzan adds a further consideration in treating of this sacrament: " It is quite a special light this"Enlightenment" of baptism... that contains the great and admirable mystery of our salvation." We receive in baptism in a seed as it were, knowledge of the whole of our faith that serves as a light to our spirit. St. Benedict was sensitive to this imagery and speaks in the Prologue of his Rule of conversion to the monastic life as a response to the deifying light.
I was admonished by all this to return to my own self, and with you to guide me, I entered into the innermost part of myself, and I was able to do this because you were my helper. I entered and I saw with my souls eye (such as it was) an unchangeable light shining above this eye of my soul and abbove my mind. It was not the ordinary light which is visible to all flesh, nor something of the same sort, only bigger It was higher than I, because it made me , and I was lower because made by it.He who knows truth knows that light, and he who knows that light knows eternity. Love knows it. O eternal truth and true love and beloved eternity! You are my God I trembeled in love and in dread, and I found that I was far distant from you, in a region of total unlikeness. (Confessions VII.10, tr. Rex Warner, 149).
Now at last then let us rise, stirred up by Scripture which says "Now is the hour to rise from sleep (Romans 13)." And with eyes opened to the deifying light and with marveling ears let us hear what the divine voice, that cries out daily, has to say to us.
In his view then, as appears from the context, entering upon the monastic life is to engage in the process of inner transformation effected by the word of God which acts upon us as a light that energizing the latent powers of our soul. If already in the Old Testament light symbolized the effect on its hearers of God's word, it assumes much greater significance and distinction in the New. In the Gospel and the Epistles in any number of ways light is employed to describe the effect of contact with the divine, as appears in the Transfiguration, for instance, where it appears during the experience of prayer. Light is regularly associated with the person of Jesus who is not only the central figure in the Transfiguration but also the source of enlightenment in a variety of other forms. He said of himself, in fact,AI am the light of the world. (John 8:12) His words and deeds give light to the blind; so true is it that our Lord is a source of spiritual light that his birth in the flesh is described by St. John as the coming of light into the darkness of this world.
In him was life and the life was the light of men, and the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not master it. There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He was the true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world (John 1: 4- 9).
The light emanating from his presence among men has a unique power that is stronger than the forces of evil and darkness. The light of life has the energy to defeat the darkness of death. Light is a symbol too of that true life which is eternal because it is a share in the glory of God Himself. Jesus announced this in advance when he proclaimed one day "I am the light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in the dark but will possess the light of life. (John 8: 12)." To recognize this light shining within and to follow where it leads as it illumines our conscience and reveals the path that leads to the very source of light is to come under the influence of a divine energy which God places at our disposal in the person of his son. St. Paul states the case strongly and clearly in writing to the Corinthians: "But we with unveiled faces gazing upon the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor 3: 18)."
St. Gregory the Great continued the development of this theme in the Catholic tradition in his writings and preaching at a time in history when there was good reason to be aware of the confusion and darkness that people encounter in periods of social and political turmoil. He understood that God has arranged matters in such a way that we are not left to our own devices amidst the confusion and ignorance that beset us in this life. He pointed out that "Scripture, in the darkness of this present life has become the light of our journey.... But we know that our lamp itself is dimmed for us unless divine truth enlightens our mind... For created light does not shine for us unless it is illuminated by uncreated light (Homilies in Ezechiel I. 7. 17 S. C. 327, p. 258)." His insights into the interaction between the inspired writings and the believer who reads them with faith and desire led to his formulating a principle that is as true today and as helpful as it was when he wrote and preached it.
For the divine words grow with the one who reads, for the more deeply he directs his mind to them the higher his understanding of them... you find progress in your grasp of the sacred word in proportion as you grow in living it.... you will understand that those things you believed at first to be expressed in the sacred word after a human manner are really not of earth. And it will happen that you will experience that the sacred words are heavenly if, set afire by the grace of conemplation, you are reaised up to heaven. (Homilies in Ezechiel I. 7. 8 S.C. 244)
In writing the Emperor's Physician who was too occupied with worldly affairs as the Pope saw it, he urged him to strive after a more dedicated and more profound spiritual life. To undertake this project Gregory advised him to make the reading of Scripture the chief practice of his interior labors. Up to now he has been neglecting the words of the redeemer; this is a serious defect, he complains and proceeds to explain why.
Thus there is a teaching in the Catholic tradition of a form of objective light which is identified with the person of Jesus. To encounter him is to discover the source of light which reveals itself in order to draw us beyond this world of darkness to "the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God enlightens it and its lamp is the lamb.(Apocalypse 21: 23)."
What is holy scripture but a certain letter of the almighty God to his creature?... The Emperor of heaven, Lord of men and angels has sent you his letters for the sake of your life, and yet, my distinguished son, you neglect ardently to read these same epistles. Apply yourself, I beseech you, to meditate the words of your Creator daily. Learn the heart of God in the words of God that you might more ardently sigh after eternal realities, and your mind might burn with greater desires for heavenly joys (Epistle to Theodore, Physician, Registrum Epistolarum CXL, 339-340)."
There is also a second, more subjective light as well; it results from the effect that encounter with the objective source of light has upon the subject. It consists in the reorientation of the faculties directing them to the beauty perceived inwardly. The mind and will are drawn by the spontaneous attraction exercise by the beauty of what they recognize as truth; this directedness and activation of the inner self gives a sense of heightened vitality that accompanies the enhanced knowledge. This quiet surge of vitality is experienced as a new life, qualitatively superior to that which was earlier known. It is all the more pure and elevated as the particular truth perceived is more enveloped in the glory that emanates from the divine mystery, whether the person of the Father, the Son or Holy Spirit or some other particular transcendent attribute.While the brilliance of this divine light is dazzling to the point of obscuring vision into the depths of the glory, yet the light that does reveal itself is unparalleled in its beauty and exercises a powerful force on the spirit, binding it more firmly to the living source of its life. The journey that leads to God is not confined to an ascent of a mountain that has no path leading to the summit. There are also stretches of the road made appealing and attractive because illuminated with the warm glow of the glory of God. Such holy and learned men as Origin, Pseudo-Denys, Augustine and Bernard are witnesses that the journey that brings us back to the Father is better characterized as a walking in the light than an ascent in the dark cloud. These men knew well the difficulties of passing through the fearful moral and spiritual darkness of this world, but they had even more distinct and deeply imprinted knowledge of the exciting and joyous communion with the Lord of glory that made their life a walking in the light with Jesus as their companion.
The resurrection of Jesus introduced into this world the new life that emanates from the Father, its living source. It was after the resurrection that St. John preached the Gospel of life in which Jesus declares "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, even though he should die, will live. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die (John 11: 25, 26)." The Lord taught essentially the same message when he proclaimed earlier that "I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in the darkness but will have the light of life. (John 8: 12)." Each dawn when the rising sun awakens the world from the darkness of the night to the light of a fresh day we are given a symbol of that new and eternal life whose light will know no setting or diminution, for God himself is its unfailing source and from his fountain we shall drink it the living waters of his truth and beauty. This is the vision which inspired the men and women who lived by the Gospel through the ages. It is this vision that created the monastic life to which we are called. Let us daily strive to walk in this light by fidelity to its demands and by a generous and enlightened response to its many graces and opportunities for service to God and to our fellow men and women.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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