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Friday, November 18, 2016

I AM the Light of the World; He Who Follows Me Does Not Walk in Darkness

The Theme of Light in the Gospel of John 

by Lawrence Fox
Author Lawrence Fox
"Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the Dawn from on high will break upon us, to shine on those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace."  (Luke 1:78-79)

Sacred Scripture often uses images from created nature and human relationships to explain who is God. In the Psalms and the Prophets, the Lord God is associated with the themes of Rock (Ps. 95), Light (Ps. 26), Shepherd of Israel (Ezek. 34:15), Israel’s Husband (Isaiah 54:5) and the Vine Dresser (Isa. 5:7)

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus Christ is associated with the theme of light no less than twenty-eight times. Usually when words and themes are repeated within Sacred Scripture, something important is happening. With the abundance of "light" associations in John's Gospel, the author is emphatically calling disciples “to see and understand” the significance of the Person of Jesus Christ. During this time of Advent waiting (starts Nov. 27, 2016), it is good to reflect on the Light of

Christ Who comes into the world and "shines on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death."

We will respond to John’s invitation to "see and understand" the theme of light and Christ's weighty words,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) Scripture's use of "light" stands above the notion of simple metaphor or figure of speech. It instead literally reveals the Person of Christ Jesus within Whom dwells the fullness of Divinity. (Col. 2:9)

Light and Sacred Scripture

Scripture opens with the revelation of created light and closes with the revelation of un-created Light. Light 
Two bookends with "light" sabers
effectively acts as two book ends for the pages of the Written Word of God. Genesis opens with God saying,
"Let there be light.” (Gen. 1:3) This is the first reference to light in Sacred Scripture. God’s spoken light breaks upon a darkness that covers the surface of the deep while the earth was still empty and without form. This light precedes the creation of the stars, sun, moon, and an event identified within Sacred Scripture as the separation of light from darkness. The apostle John opens the 4th Gospel with a similar theme stating,
“In him (Jesus) was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1:4)

The Eternal Word of God – through Whom and for Whom all things exists - became flesh so as to bring the life of light to men walking in the darkness of sin. God who dwells in unapproachable light becomes visible through the Incarnation of His Eternal Word. God was made man an dwelt among. The author John emphasises this truth by writing, “for the life was made visible, we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us.” (1 John 1:2) The apostle John demonstrates the literal meaning of those words by introducing the man named Nicodemus who visits and listens to Jesus’ words at night.

Teacher of Israel Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, visited Jesus under the cover of darkness. (John 3:1) Like a moth
Nicodemus visiting Jesus

attracted to the light shining in the dark, he is seeking to understand the nature of Jesus’ teaching. He fulfils in himself the promise made by God through the prophet Isaiah,
“Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” 

Later on in John’s Gospel, the Pharisees are recorded as saying to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him.” (John 12:19) This fulfilment begins with Nicodemus who comes so as to avoid being seen by his fellow council members. Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he must be born anew in order to enter the Kingdom of God. 

Nicodemus considers the words of Jesus solely on a natural level, prompting Jesus to reply,
“You are Israel’s teacher and do not understand these things?” Jesus is offering Nicodemus, who represents the dark spiritual condition of the shepherds of Israel in Jesus’ time, the hope of the long-awaited coming of the Kingdom of God. Ezekiel prophesied: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.” (Ezek. 36:25)

Without the Gift of Water and Spirit (John 3:5), a darkness remains within Israel which hounds Jesus all the way to Calvary. Nicodemus represents Israel’s natural search for God in law and temple sacrifice. Jesus is calling Jacob to a New and Everlasting Covenant where Israel worships the Father in Spirit and Truth within a temple not made by human hands. (Acts 7:48)

In Genesis, the Lord God said,
"Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day
from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years.” (Gen. 1:14) The descendants of Adam and Eve worshipped God within the cosmic temple by observing the presence of created light. 

The second bookend of Scripture manifests uncreated Light as the worship of God within the temple not made by human hands. John writes, “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The City does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the Glory of God gives it light and the Lamb is its lamp.” (Rev. 21:22)

The Triune God who lives in unapproachable light (1Tim. 6:16) is gazed upon by the “pure of heart” now able to see God. (Matt. 5:8) How is this possible except by their abiding in the light and life of God in Jesus Christ? (Jesus of Nazareth - Holy Week p. 58) The
fact that Light is first and last in Holy Scripture reveals Jesus Christ is the “First and Last.” (Rev. 1:17) The theme of light is not simply a metaphor but a substantive revelation of Jesus Christ; one Divine Person, two natures — human (created) and divine (uncreated). The revelation of the Glory of God and the Lamb of God together as both light and lamp closes the pages of Sacred Scripture. 

In between these two book ends, the theme of light flows from the throne of God into the hearts of men and back again in the form of prayer, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 26) and again “Thy word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my paths.” (Ps. 118:105) In these prayers, the theme of light is associated with “life, truth, and way” which now brings this essay to the association of “Light and Life.”

Light and Life

John writes that “in Him was life and that life was the light of men.” (John 1: 4) On a natural level, sunlight enables plants to grow which then provides men with food, oxygen, and the raw materials necessary for constructing tools, shelters, and temples. This relationship between natural light and life from the sun and supernatural light and life from the Son is not a coincidence. The Catholic Catechism teaches, “God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.”(CCC art. 36) By the natural light of human reasoning, man is able to observe the “sign of nature” and in doing so ponders the mind of God. (Rom.1:19-21) 

Jesus marvelled at the peoples’ lack of faith, since they could read the signs of nature but could not read the signs of the times, namely,
the coming of the Kingdom. (Matt. 16:3) The Magi on the other hand observed the lights of created heaven and the lights found in their sacred writings as one divine revelation. The Magi, by being open to the natural light of reason, the light of faith, and the created light of the star, were able to find the light and life of the world dwelling as an Infant in Bethlehem. On the other hand, Herod — who knew neither the signs of the times nor the prophecies of Sacred Scripture (Matt. 2:4) -- only considered things that lead to darkness and the culture of death. He was unable to receive the Light of the world dwelling within the Infant Christ.

Natural light forms a powerful analogy showing man’s absolute dependence upon the supernatural Light of Christ. Jesus said:
“I am the light of the world; he that follows me, does not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12) Pope Benedict in his book titled, Jesus of Nazareth points out that the term life used here in John’s Gospel is not (bios) meaning material life but (Zoë) which means the life belonging to God. The use of the term Zoë supports a literal understanding of Jesus’ words, “I came into the world that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) We participate in Life to the fullest in God’s own Life. Such participation begins at Baptism (faith in Christ); and bears fruit in disciples who are “pure of heart.”

There is both theological and philosophical significance to the theme of light. Light is something; darkness is the absence of light. Life is something and death is the absence of life. The nature of God is existence and creation depends upon God for its existence. When Jesus states emphatically, “I am the light and life of the world,” he is echoing the Voice emerging from the burning bush on Mount Sinai. Moses asks God to reveal His name and God responds emphatically, “I AM WHO AM.” (Ex. 3:14) Jesus is literally the light and life of God come down from heaven.

Sacred Scripture states that God sustains all things through His mighty Word. John the apostle captures this divine echo by reporting Jesus’ dialogue with the Jews: “You are not yet 50 years old, what do mean Abraham saw your day?” Jesus replies, “Amen, Amen, before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58) The Jews picked up stones in an attempt to kill Him for committing the sin of blasphemy, “You being a man make yourself equal with God.” (John 10:33) Jesus’ words “AMEN, AMEN” are meant to convey that Jesus is emphatically the light and life of the world; he is also “the true light which gives light to every man.” (John 1: 9) This brings us to the next association identified in John’s Gospel as “Light and Truth.”

Light and Truth

In Sacred Scripture associates the theme of light with truth. The Psalmist writes, “Send forth thy light and thy truth; they have conducted me and brought me to your holy hill and into thy tabernacles.” (Ps. 42:3) John identifies Jesus as the true Light, which gives light to every man. The existence of the expression “true Light” might imply that a false light exists. A “false light” is akin to a false Gospel, which is no Gospel at all. (Gal. 1:7) In other words a false light is the absence of truth; not a form of truth, which begs the question, “What is truth?”

Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “I came into the world to bear witness to the truth.” (John 18:37) Pilate responds cynically, “What is truth?” What is revealed in this question is God hidden within Christ’s humanity. St. Augustine of Hippo identifies truth as “what something is versus what something is not.” The Muslim Ibn Sina states that “truth exists when man’s understanding is in agreement with the thing being observed.” Aristotle defines truth as “What something is, is and what something is not, is not.” St. Hilary of Poitiers defines truth as “revealing and making clear what exists.” 

For the classical world, truth was related to being (existence). That which exists is good. Truth exists and is good. Both truth and goodness are beautiful. Jesus came into the world to make clear what truly exists so that men would live in objective truth, that is reality, which is good and beautiful. It is not good to live enslaved by fantasy in one’s subjective imagination. This leads to the murder of truth, the death of goodness, and the path is mired in shamefulness. Jesus came into the world so that men would worship the Father in “Spirit and Truth.” (John 4:23)

The search for objective truth is a search for God since all things which exist do so first in the mind of God, “I knew you before you were born” (Jer. 1:5) and secondly, “God spoke and it was,” (Ps. 33:9) and thirdly, “in God there is no darkness.” (1 John 1:5) Jesus identifies Himself as man’s search for God by saying, “I am the light and truth. He who has seen me has seen the Father.” When God reveals that something is, it truly is. And when God reveals that something is not, it truly is not.

God the Father said to the apostles on Mount Tabor, “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”
(Matt. 17:5) This understanding of truth rooted in the mind of God has been lost on the fallen world, which now sees the good as something evil and evil as something good. Jesus identifies this condition as follows: “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil…But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light.” (John 3: 19-21)

Again for the classical world, truth was related to being. The modern man understands truth as human facts. The post-modern man understands truth as what is willed and shaped by man. The ultimate darkness is man identifying himself as the creator and God as made in man’s image. Jesus Christ comes as Light to remove the darkness and to fill man with the life of grace. Light and Truth are not metaphors when Jesus uses the terms. They are supernatural realities.

Jesus told Pilate that He came into the world to witness to the truth. In that statement, he first bore witness to God the Father, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing,” (John 5:19) and secondly, “Now this is eternal life; that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent,” (John 17:3) and thirdly, “I will ask the Father and he will give you another comforter to be with you forever – the Spirit of Truth.” (John 14: 16) 

To paraphrase St. Hilary of Poitiers, Jesus became flesh and dwelt among men to reveal and make abundantly clear the source and revelation of truth itself — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A person searching for light and truth is seeking the Father through the Person of Jesus Christ,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) This brings us to the third association of “light and way.”

Light and the Way

Jesus told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them. He promised to return and bring them back to where He was. (John 14:3) Jesus says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas replies that the disciples do not know where Jesus is going and they cannot know the way. Thomas’ question is fundamental with every person who ponders; “Who am I and where am I going?” 

Jesus told his disciples,
“I have come from the Father and I am returning to the Father.” (John 16:28, 29) It is interesting that with these words the apostles respond, “Now you are speaking clearly and now we know you are the Son of God.” (John 16: 29) Each person’s vocation is to return to the Father’s House not as slaves but as children of Light. “While you have the light, believe in the light that you may be children of the light.” (John 12:36) The apostles understood that each created person comes from the Father and in Christ Jesus returns to the Father. Christians are “people on the way” because the light of Jesus Christ guides them. (Acts 19:9; 22:4). The blind (as in the case of Bartimaeus) receive the gift of sight, and thereafter become pilgrims following Jesus “along the way” to Jerusalem. (Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week p.3)

I must admit that apart from any other context the language “children of light” is nebulous. And yet the theme of light guiding the people of God, can be seen in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “O house of Jacob, come and let us walk in the light of the Lord.” (Isa. 2:5). The prophet is encouraging the descendants of Jacob to become children of light. He is reminding them that God guided their forefathers out of Egypt towards the Promised Land by light, “By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take.” (Neh. 9:12) Jesus Christ is the visible manifestation of God’s Divine Presence in the world separating day from night, and light from darkness. 

Final Thoughts

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) By considering the theme of light alongside these notable words, the thought it expresses is more glorious than a metaphor or figure of speech. It literally becomes a revelation of God in the Person of Jesus Christ. The Person of the Light is the means by which anyone can come to the Father. He is the way to the Father because “no one has seen God except the only begotten of God who dwells in the bosom of the Father.” (John 1: 18) It is only in and through the Person of Jesus Christ that a person becomes “pure of heart” and able to see God. Jesus is light and life since “All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:17, 18) As light is the source of life in the natural world, Jesus is the supernatural Light bringing eternal life to men. Jesus is God’s one eternal Word, One in being with the Father. Jesus is “the radiance of God’s Glory and the exact representation of His Being sustaining all things by His powerful Word.” (Heb. 1:3)

Disciples encounter the Light of Christ in many ways. They ponder His Words in Holy Scripture. They study the lives of His saints, who each uniquely modelled Christ’s life in their own time. Disciples remain in communion with His Church,and participate in His Sacraments. They recognise the divine purpose within nature. In all these, the

countenance of God’s Glory is manifested in and through the Person of Jesus Christ, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God's glory displayed in the face of Christ.” (2Cor. 4:6)

He is the Light; the Dawn from on high, which will break upon us to shine on those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death. He will guide our feet into the path of salvation. Come Lord Jesus.

Lawrence Fox is working on a master's degree in Sacred Theology at the International Theological Institute in Trumau, Austria. 

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Aquinas, Thomas, Selected Philosophical Writings. Translated by Timothy McDermott. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1997.

Ratzinger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. Translated and edited by Philip J. Whitmore. New York: Doubleday, 2007.

Ratzinger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. New York: Doubleday, 2011.

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