Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Biblical Journey:
From Darkness to Light
"In the beginning, when God created the heavens
and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness
covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.
And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. God saw
how good the light was. God then separated the light from the
darkness" (Gn 1:1-4).
And so it began. With the Bible's first recorded words, that
great biblical dichotomy between light and darkness, that study
in contrasts which would form a recurring theme throughout Scripture
started weaving its way all the way through to the last chapter
of the last book, "Night will be no more, nor will they need light
from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and
they shall reign forever and ever" (Rv 22:5). In between, there
are over 260 biblical references to light and some 200 more to
dark or darkness.
Of course, the Bible is far from the only literary
work to make good use of this motif. It is found across a broad
spectrum of religious traditions, in a wide variety of secular
literature and in everyday conversation ("Don't keep me in the
dark" or "I'm beginning to see the light"). But, like a lot of
other terminology that trips off the tongue blithely, do we really
know what it means?
Plain Words; Complex Meanings
Light may refer to exterior luminosity or interior
illumination. The same word may indicate that a person or object
is aglow or that it is weightless. It may be intended literally,
metaphorically, allegorically, or symbolically.
All of those usages find their way onto biblical
pages in one book or another. It can even, or perhaps especially,
be seen as a divine attribute, "God is light, and in him there
is no darkness at all" (1 Jn 1:5b).
Humankind has historically nursed a deep fear of
darkness, and its traits are, quite naturally, diametrically opposed
to those of light. They may describe exterior gloom or interior
oblivion. They may point to a person's lack of knowledge or nefarious
intent. If, as John writes, God is light, the personification
of evil more than merits the title Prince of Darkness bestowed
early in the Christian era.
Light may be vision; darkness, blindness. Light
may be virtue; darkness, sin. Light may be wisdom; darkness, ignorance.
Light may be comprehension; darkness, delusion. Light may be truth;
darkness, fallacy. Light may be the personification of Goodness;
darkness, the personification of Evil. Light may quite simply
be day; darkness, nothing more than night.
Lumen Christi (Christ, Our Light)
There may be no better time to see this theme visually
played out in Catholic liturgy than during the Easter Vigil. Restored
to its ancient prominence by Vatican II, this imposing rite opens
in unrelieved darkness. Congregants wait quietly, expectantly.
Then, from the back of the church, a voice intones, "Lumen
Christi" or "Christ, Our Light." Turning, worshippers see
a single candle flaring over the church's central aisle. Lit from
the new Easter fire kindled earlier outside, this single flame
represents the astounding news of the resurrected Jesus being
announced to a weary and darkened world so badly in need of it.
As the Easter candle moves in stately procession toward the sanctuary,
the proclamation "Lumen Christi" is repeated two more times,
each time with greater volume.
Meanwhile, small candles distributed to parishioners
upon their arrival are flickering to life as the light of Christ
is drawn from the Easter candle and shared from person to person
the length of every row. Soon the church is bathed in light, all
of it emanating from the Christ candle. As the liturgy unfolds,
seven (the biblical perfect number) readings from the First Testament
chronicle humanity's long journey out of darkness. These are followed
by readings from the Second Testament, joyously proclaiming that
Jesus Christ, through his resurrection, has brought the people
of God into his magnificent light, a light that will never be
extinguished. There will be no more darkness.
During a later portion of the Easter Vigil, the
parish's catechumens and candidates come forward to be received
into full communion with Catholic belief and practice. Those being
baptized are also given a candle to keep as a remembrance of their
immersion into the light of Christ, their unique reception into
the family of God.
Candles appear on or near the altar at every Catholic
eucharistic celebration. Traditionally, banks of them have found
a place in Catholic churches where they are lit to symbolize the
prayers offered by individuals and by the parish community. The
significance of light is so deeply ingrained in our tradition
that it should need no further elaboration. Unfortunately, the
significance of even our most profound symbols can sometimes be
diminished, even lost, through over-familiarity. We may find it
helpful to revisit some of those biblical allusions to light and
its counterpart that started it all.
God Is Light
John's notion that God is light, committed to writing
in the late first century C.E., was no newfangled idea. It had
been around as far back as the Exodus over 1,200 years earlier.
As John's Israelite ancestors set out from Egypt on what would
prove to be a lengthy plod through the desert, "The Lord preceded
them, in the daytime by means of a column of cloud to show them
the way, and at night by means of a column of fire to give them
light. Thus they could travel both day and night. Neither the
column of cloud by day nor the column of fire by night ever left
its place in front of the people" (Ex 13:21-22). Manifestations
of this sort are called theophanies, means of demonstrating God's
presence although God is not seen. The sense of the passage is
that God stood at the head of his people, providing both direction
and light. Certainly, actual illumination is meant, but equally
important is light in the sense of understanding. As a later psalmist
would write, "A lamp to my feet is your word, a light to my path"
Catholics seeking to pray before the real presence
of the eucharistic Jesus instinctively look for the sanctuary
light burning near the tabernacle. Few may realize just how long
God's "light" has been around. During the Exodus, the Ark of the
Covenant, the original tabernacle, was housed in a tent. Aaron,
the first high priest, was ordered to "keep lamps burning regularly....
Thus, by a perpetual statute for you and your descendants, the
lamps shall be set up on the pure gold lampstand to burn regularly
before the Lord" (Lv 24:2b-4). The practice continued when a more
permanent shrine was made part of Solomon's temple and still later
when the second temple was constructed.
Less than two centuries before Jesus, that temple
was desecrated by a Hellenistic despot. Down from the hills rode
Judas Maccabeus and his brothers who threw the rascals out, cleansed
and purified the temple, and rededicated it. In the process, they
relit the ancient flame. God had returned! Each year, usually
in December, that wondrous event is commemorated by Jews worldwide
at Hanukkah, the Festival of Light.
Moving in and out of the Light
But it is Jesus himself, especially as he is portrayed
in John's Gospel, who is the ultimate personification of God's
light to us mortals, who so often grope blindly for enlightenment.
"What came to be through him was life, and this
life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the
darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (Jn 1:3b-5).
Not for John a Christmas story of shepherds and
mangers, stars and magi. Instead, John drops his readers' jaws
by describing the majestic human incarnation of God in Jesus,
"...the true light which enlightens everyone..." (Jn 1:9a). When
he is grown and ministering to the multitudes, Jesus will say
much the same thing about himself, "I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the
light of life" (Jn 8:12b).
If Jesus is the light in the Fourth Gospel, John's
fascinating cast of characters spend much of their time positioning
themselves in relation to that light, i.e., to Jesus. Times of
day are mentioned often, and, while they may have some literal
significance, they usually carry a symbolic or metaphorical one
as well. Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well "about noon"
(Jn 4:6b). That may well be, but this foreigner, with whom Jesus
is about to enter into a deeply theological dialogue, stands in
the presence of God's own light and will soon be enlightened by
"the light of the world." Judas, on the other hand, having spent
many months bathed in that light on a daily basis, plunges back
into the darkness. As he leaves the Last Supper to carry out his
betrayal, John cryptically (and unnecessarily) adds, "It was night"
Two Johannine characters in particular have interesting
relationships to "the light"—Nicodemus and the man born blind.
In each case, their coming fully into the light will be a gradual
process. What a consoling message that is for us who struggle
throughout our lifetimes to find our way totally into the light
and remain there.
Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee and probable member
of the Jewish Sanhedrin, "came to Jesus at night" (Jn 3:2a). This
educated religious leader, thought to be enlightened, approaches
Jesus from the shadows, curious to know more about him. The ensuing
dialogue ends inconclusively. Nicodemus appears interested, but
uncommitted. A later episode tells of the chief priest and Pharisees
arguing over whether or not Jesus' teaching should be condemned.
It is Nicodemus who argues, "Does our law condemn a person before
it first hears him and finds out what he is doing?" (Jn 7:51).
It would seem that the darkness has receded to some extent.
But it is at Jesus' crucifixion that Nicodemus
finally places himself fully in the light. As Joseph of Arimathea
removes Jesus' body from the cross, "Nicodemus, the one who had
first come to him at night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh
and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds" (Jn 19:39). Such
an wealth of burial spices was fit for a king. Nicodemus was planted
firmly in the light.
Chapter 9 of John brings the wonderful story of
the man born blind. Here is someone who has always lived in total
darkness physically, and probably spiritually as well. Jesus easily
brings the man's dead eyes to life. Bringing him fully into the
light of God takes longer. The process is recorded in the various
titles the man has for Jesus: "the man called Jesus" (Jn 9:11a);
"he is a prophet" (9:17b); "the Son of Man" (9:35b); "I do believe,
In a clever literary twist, all the time the man
born blind is moving steadily toward full vision, some Pharisees
who thought themselves thoroughly enlightened were moving just
as steadily toward darkness. To them, Jesus addressed these words,
"'I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not
see might see, and those who do see might become blind.' Some
of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him,
'Surely we are not also blind, are we?' Jesus said to them, 'If
you were blind, you would have no sin, but now you are saying,
'We see,' so your sin remains" (9:39-41).
What is the message to us? We may perhaps need
to look at ourselves, our parishes, our institutions, our Church,
our nation, our world with new eyes. Are there blinders we need
to remove? Rose-colored glasses? Do we sometimes take shelter
in the darkness, comforting ourselves that there we cannot be
expected to see? How do we "see" God? Do we allow Jesus' light
to shine in us and through us? The questions aren't that much
different from those posed to the many generations before us.
The answers, however, may be totally unique.
Next: Biblical Translations (by Irene Nowell,