“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John states this forthrightly in his Gospel (1:5). Light draws our attention, particularly when set against contrasting darkness. Our inclination to seek light seems to be a near-universal aspect of human nature. Notice how often people are drawn to well-lit rooms and sunlit places to sit or work.
This truism, discerned in natural human experience, is paralleled by a similar phenomenon in our experience of the sacred and of divinity. We often speak of these encounters by employing the metaphor of illumination, of ‘seeing the light.’ A popular contemporary hymn, based in part on imagery from the book of Revelation, has this refrain: “In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” These are biblically-inspired, and faith-shaped, prayerful words.
Our created natural humanity is therefore disposed to seek the light, both physically and spiritually. We yearn to discern, to see and to know. And in so many ways, light is the key to perception. Light enables us to discern physical presence from absence; things that are large as compared with those that are small; things that are near as compared with things that are far; and, perhaps most experientially significant, the panoply of color as compared with the mere difference between light and dark. (This is one reason why I buy full-spectrum light bulbs, such as halogen bulbs).
Eugene Peterson’s wonderful translation of part of Matthew 5 prompted me to think along these lines. He renders Jesus’ familiar words, “You are the light of the world,” in this way: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.”
Having shared his vocation with his disciples and first followers, Jesus shares his calling with us. In part, it is rooted in the prophet Isaiah’s vocation. When Israel was called to be a light to the nations of the world, Isaiah found that he was called to be an exemplar of this role. We know from history that neither Isaiah nor God’s people were able to fulfill that lofty and sacred summons. Jesus then accepted and fulfilled the same vocation. As members of his Body, he shares it with us, with all its holy responsibility.
Jesus’ sense of his vocation may have been founded upon his appreciation for several texts from Isaiah:
I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations… (Is.42:6)
I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Is. 49:6)
And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Is. 60:3)
Matthew appears to have understood this, and quotes Jesus in this way:
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Mt. 5:15-16)
Luke confirms this same understanding of Isaiah’s words when he reports on Paul and Barnabas at Antioch. In Acts he portrays Paul as contending for the mission to the Gentiles while applying Isaiahs words to Barnabas and himself:
I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth. (Acts 13:47)
Though we often seek the gift of light for ourselves, for our own sake, God gives light for the life of the world.
The image above is by Isaak Levitan, Near Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery. The hymn, “I want to walk as a child of the light,” can be found (among many other places) in The Hymnal 1982 (#490).