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2 before Lent: Light

19 February 2006
Proverbs 1:22-31, John 1: 1-14, Psalm 104: 25-37 Praise [the Lord], O my soul!
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? Psalm 27:1

As we all know, light was the first thing God created after heaven and earth. Genesis 1.3
Light and darkness have always been part of human existence as we circle the sun, which to the ancient world was a god. The Judaeo-Christian tradition took over and transformed this god:

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined, wrote Isaiah; 9:2

and then Jesus himself said: I am the light of the world: he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.John 8:12

So light has become a powerful image for the way in which God revealed himself in Christ, and the powers of evil have become associated with darkness. But what is light?

As Dr. Johnson said:
we all know what light is, but it is not easy to tell what light is.

Craig Freudenrich was more analytical:
We see things every day, from the moment we get up in the morning until we go to sleep at night. We look at everything around us using light. We appreciate our children's drawings, fine oil paintings, swirling computer graphics, gorgeous sunsets, blue skies, shooting stars and rainbows. We rely on mirrors to make ourselves presentable, and sparkling jewels to show affection. But did you ever stop to think that when we see any of these objects, we are not directly connected to it? We are simply seeing light - light that somehow left objects and reached our eyes, sometimes nanoseconds later, sometimes light-years. Light is all our eyes can really see.

And Isaac Newton regarded the ' intelligent design' that gave animals eyes as evidence of God's existence:
Did blind chance know that there was light and what was its refraction, and fit the eyes of all creatures after the most curious manner to make use of it? These, and other suchlike considerations, always have and always will prevail with mankind to believe that there is a Being who made all things.

Whether we perceive something as beautiful or ugly also depends on light:
Treat your friends as you do your pictures, and place them in their best light, said Lady Randolph Churchill.

John Constable went even further: There is nothing ugly. I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for, let the form of an object be what it may, - light, shade and perspective will always make it beautiful.

James Thurber thought you could have too much of a good thing:
There are two kinds of light - the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures.

But not enough is just as problematic: Making decisions in the dark can lead to some regrettable consequences.

Back in the days before electricity, a tightfisted old farmer was taking his farmhand to task for carrying a lighted lantern when he went to call on his sweetheart. 'Why', he exclaimed, 'when I went a-courtin' I never carried one of them things. I always went in the dark'. 'Yes,' said the hired man wryly 'and look who you ended up with!' [Anon]

The pleasure that Gerald Manley Hopkins derived from dappled things is shared by C S Lewis:
Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are 'patches of Godlight' in the woods of our experience. Letters from Malcolm

Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, it is said, and Jesus urged us to become beacons of light ourselves: You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5

George Bush senior spoke memorably at his inauguration of the power of a thousand points of light when individuals join together in united effort.

The German theologian, Meister Eckhart, reminded us that dawn comes at the darkest hour:
Truly, it is in darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us.

Bishop Latimer took that thought to heroic lengths when he was burnt at the stake by Mary Tudor in 1555:
Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England as shall never be put out.

In 'The Rock', T S Eliot celebrates all the different kinds of light:

O Light Invisible, we praise Thee! Too bright for mortal vision.
O Greater Light, we praise Thee for the less;
The eastern light our spires touch at morning,
The light that slants upon our western doors at evening,
The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight,
Moon light and star light, owl and moth light,
Glow-worm glowlight on a grassblade.
O Light Invisible, we worship Thee!
We thank Thee for the lights that we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary;
Small lights of those who meditate at midnight
And lights directed through the coloured panes of windows
And light reflected from the polished stone,
The gilded carven wood, the coloured fresco.
Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward
And see the light that fractures through unquiet water.
We see the light but see not whence it comes.
O Light Invisible, we glorify Thee.

Life for Christians is a process of being freed from darkness to live in the light, and church architecture reflects that. We usually enter churches at the west end, where the font is often placed, symbolising the direction of the underworld, because it is there that the sun is swallowed up in darkness at sunset. At the other end is the altar, facing east, the direction of sunrise, resurrection and new life. So from west to east, from font to altar and from darkness to light, what John Donne imagined as no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light.

And Donne brings us the promise, so welcome in February, that God can take us straight to summer out of winter:

He brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light, and he can bring thee summer out of winter, though thou hast no spring. Though in the ways of fortune, understanding, or conscience thou hast been benighted till now, wintered and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied, now God comes to thee, not as the dawning of the day, not as the bud of the spring, but as the sun at noon.

Jesus, Light of the world:
When we are afraid and unsure, comfort us with the light of your presence;
When loneliness chills us, warm us with the light of your love;
When the road ahead seems dark, guide us with the light of your way;
When we don't understand and our throughts are unclear, fill us with the light of your wisdom;
When we seem spent like a candle consumed, replenish us with the light of your life.
Then, so filled with your light, use us so that we, with you, may be light for the world.' Amen.
Fr. Wally Hyclak