Let There Be Light

I love the light. I don’t just mean the feel of sunlight on my face, which is wonderful. Or even the brightness of a beautiful sunny day. Or the ability to find my way.

One of the things I love about hiking in the woods is the interplay of light and shade resulting from the way the light comes through the trees or peaks around large rocks. Multiple streams of light in my path. A shady area broken by a sun-lit flower shining brilliantly as though a stage light were pointed at it. Fluttering movements of shade and light as leaves dance the breeze. Absolutely beautiful. A delight to behold.

I commented to my husband as we were walking through all of this yesterday that I realized this is a significant part of why I like Caravaggio and Vermeer so much. Each of them imitates nature to use light – and the contrast of light and shadow – in their painting in such a powerful way.

God said, “Let there be Light” and all of this came into being. The sunlight on my face. Our ability to see. And the beautiful interplay of light and shadow that is such a delight to behold. It is a beautiful world!


Lent: 40 Days of Rehab

“Nothing kills a great buzz like 28 days of rehab.” Thus began Fr. Dale’s sermon at Mass at Christ the King yesterday morning. He talked about the self-absorption and isolation that addiction to drugs and alcohol fosters, how one addicted to alcohol shuns friends and family who might disapprove of their behavior and locks themselves away with their bottle (and perhaps some cooking shows on television). Why, he asked, would one choose alcohol over loving community – the darkness and isolation of addiction over the light and love of family and friends?

In today’s Gospel from St. John, we hear the line so frequently quoted or cited: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. But the offer of eternal life isn’t always accepted. The Gospel goes on to say that (like the addict) “this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light.”

Why would anyone choose darkness to light? Why, when God offers abundant love and eternal life, when God keeps trying to draw us closer and closer in God’s loving embrace, do people choose to stay in darkness?

The darkness is less satisfactory, but as Fr. Dale observed, it is also familiar. We can hide things in the dark, we can avoid the hard truths that the light exposes.

Lent, he suggested, is like rehab. We come to this time each year to try to respond more fully to the invitation God always offers for us to come into the light. To cast off the familiar in favor of that which is not only more satisfying, but which is the most, the best, that we can be. Coming further out of the darkness can be hard – some hurtful and painful things can get exposed when we come into the light. But the payoff is priceless.

Fr. Dale closed his homily by observing, “Nothing cures a Christian like 40 days of rehab.”

We are now 26 days into Lent. How is your rehab going?

A Light to the Whole World

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Epiphany of the Lord. Although the traditional day for the celebration is January 6, the celebration is now often moved to the Sunday closest to the day, which is today.

Although I grew up going to Catholic school, and therefore knew that the Epiphany (capital E) had to do with the coming of the Magi, I don’t think I ever had any idea of what the word epiphany (small e) meant when I was in grade school. As I observed once before, the first time the word had any significance to me was when I read James Joyce’ Dubliners in high school, and learned of his use of the term to refer to a sudden flash of insight or perception. (I still remember spending lots of time in English class talking about the epiphanies of various characters in Joyce’s writings.)

The word “epiphany” comes from a Greek term meaning manifestation or appearance and in Christian terms refers to the revelation of God becoming human in the person of Jesus. St. Gregory the Great spoke of creation responding to the Incarnation: “When the king of heaven was born, the heavens knew that he was God because they immediately sent forth a star; the sea knew him because it allowed him to walk upon it; the earth knew him because it trembled when he died; the sun knew him because it hid the rays of its light.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the feast of the Epiphany the feast “which celebrates the manifestation to the world of the newborn Christ as Messiah, Son of God, and Savior of the world.” The heavens revealed Jesus to the world by sending forth a star. The Wise Men, the first Gentiles to acknowledge Christ’s kingship, revealed Jesus to a world beyond Bethleham.

But, as with so much else, we miss the real point if we just think of this as a remembrance of an event that happened a long time ago. The implication of saying that the light of Christ is a light to the whole world is that it is our task today is to reveal Jesus to the world. In the words of one of the blessings we receive at the end of Mass on this day,

Because you are followers of Christ,
who appeared on this day as a light shining in darkness,
may he make you a light to all your sisters and brothers.

I Beg To Differ

I love Margaret Silf, and I came across a quote the other day from her most recent book, A Book of Grace-Filled Days. Silf writes

A first-century philosopher observed: ‘When I light a candle at midnight, I say to the darkness: “I beg to differ.”’ As we light our Christmas candles, we, too, say to the darkness in our world and in our own hearts, ‘You have no final power over us, for the first and final word is eternal light.’

Wonderful words to reflect on.

The event that we just celebrated two days ago is not simply about birth. It is, rather, the beginning of God-with-us that proceeds through Death, Resurrection, Ascension and the Coming of the Spirit. It is about the coming into the human world of the Word, and, as the reading from John we heard proclaimed on Christmas Day put it so beautifully, “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.”

Our task, in this Christmas season and always, is to proclaim the reality of this light. To move through a world in which there is suffering, a world in which things sometimes look so very bleak, and say to the darkness (in the world and in our hearts), “I beg to differ. Victory has been won and you have no final power over us.”

What It Means to Be the Light of the World

I mentioned earlier in the week that I attended two masses on Sunday – a mass at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Sunday morning and Catholic mass in my parish Sunday evening. I was reminded today of one of the images the minster who gave the homily at St. John’s (Rev. Dr. Heidi Joos) used in talking about Jesus’ telling his disciples that they were the light of the world.

Rev. Joos makes an annual trip to Nicaragua. She described to us how dark it gets that close to the equator when the sun sets – a complete darkness that makes it difficult to find one’s way back to one’s hotel. She talked about those needing to find their way clustering in groups around those few who remembered to carry flashlights, aware of the narrow circle of illumination the flashlight projected. I could easily picture in my mind a single person holding a flashlight, giving light to the others.

Later in her sermon, she paraphrased Jesus’ statement to his disciples as “Be a circle of brightness big enough for people to see my path in the dark… You are the light of the world.”

I thought it was a wonderful description of what we are called to be. A light in the darkness – not for the purpose of illuminating ourselves. Not a light that shines on us. Rather, a light that points to Jesus. A light that shows people the way. That is that we are called to be.

The Nicaragua flashlight image is a good one I think. Because it reminds us of something important that may help us from feeling discouraged when our efforts seem so small. Each light may only illuminate a narrow circle. But all of our lights together – well, just picture first a single person holding a flashlight and then imagine lots and lots of people each holding a flashlight. And watch how much illumination there is.

Ain’t Much Good Without a Wick

“You are the light of the world,” says Jesus to his disciples in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew. Whenever I read the “salt and light” passage from which that line comes, what plays through my mind is the Godspell version of that song. (I still remember every word to every song of that play, which I saw many performances of in my youth.)

In the Light of the World song, each of the statements – you are the light of the world, you are the salt of the earth, you are the city of God – is followed by an admonition. One of the warnings that follows the line “you are the light of the world” is: “But the tallest candlestick ain’t much good without a wick.”

The tallest candlestick ain’t much good without a wick. If we who are Christians are to be the light of the world, there is only one wick for our candle and that is Jesus. This is something Paul understood well. In the second reading for today’s Mass, he tells the people of Corinth, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ.” And he makes smiliar statements elsewhere, such as when he told the Galatians, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”

It seems pretty basic to say that if we are Christian disciples, Jesus must be our core. But I have heard things preached from preachers of various Christian traditions that don’t much sound like anything Jesus said and modeled. I dare say the same could be said for many of our actions.

And so I think we need to continually check ourselves, asking: Am I preaching Jesus? Is what I say and what do rooted in Jesus’ teachings? Do my words and deeds reflect that Jesus is the center of who I am in the world? Unless the answers to those questions is yes, it doesn’t matter how large our candle is – we won’t be the light of the world.


In an column in the current issue of America magazaine titled Light Switch, Margaret Silf (who I love) quotes Helen Prejean saying, “When I light a candle at midnight, I say to the darkness: ‘I beg to differ.'”

Light is a powerful symbol for us. Some of our ancestors entered New York Harbor and, seeing the light from the Statue of Liberty, would realize they had reached the end of a long journey. A lone traveler on a dark road is comforted by the present of a light up ahead that tells him he has found a place of rest. Many light a candle before beginning prayer, a tangible reminder of the presence of God who is always with us.

As Christians, we need to ask ourselves not merely how we will light our own little space, but how will we be light to the world. How will we bring the ligth of Christ to all those we meet? For surely, the world needs our light. As Margaret Silf writes:

The light is more needed than ever in our world today. The dark night seems to enshroud us and the storm clouds gather. How will that light shine in our own dark streets? We may bless the candles in church, but unless we carry the light out into a troubled world, the blessing will never be effective.

As Silf goes on to observe, we can be light-bearers in many different ways, large and small. The important thing is that we “pause and ponder any situations in which we might ourselves choose to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.”

Bearers and Receivers of Light

I’ve mentioned before the sermons of Rev. Marianne Edgar Budde, rector of St. John’s Episcopal parish in Minneapolis. This past weekend, she completed a four-part sermon series, From Darkness to Light, presented during the four Sundays of Advent.

There is much to reflect on in Rev. Budde’s sermons and as I have re-read her sermon series in these last days of Advent, I have come back several times to a portion of the third sermon in the darkness and light series. Quoting two passages in Isaiah – “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” and “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” – she asks how it is that we see the light. From where does the light come when the darkness seems so complete that hope is lost?

Rev. Budde gave one answer to that question, a beautiful one, saying:

No doubt there are countless ways, but here is one way: we hold the light for each other. By the grace of God, someone in the midst of every darkness is given the power to see light, or to trust in light, when all is dark. And that person holds it, carries it, keeps it alive until others see it, too, and together, they begin the long walk out of darkness.

Each of us, at times, is light bearer or light receiver. We have all had times when others “have held light for [us] when all was dark, who assured [us], or assure [us] now, that things will get better.” And each of us “have in the past or are now keeping the light alive for someone else.” Those actions – given and received may be quite small. As Rev. Budde observed, “what keeps most of us going in our darkest hours are the bearers of light closer in, the words of kindness spoken by a friend or stranger; a prayer offered when we are in pain; a phone call reaching through the shrouds of grief to remind us that we’re not alone; a courageous local leader taking a stand for justice.”

The truth she asks us to hold onto is a simple one:

[I]n the darkness of your life, there has been, and is now, light shining, held by others who love you, believe in you, and want only what is best for you. And in the darkness of another person’s life, you might be the light, or the one entrusted with the light that they need to see by. That’s how the light of God works in and through us. There are other ways that the light shines, to be sure, but this way is one that involves you and me directly.

We each, she concludes must accept both the blessing and responsibility that is our life – to hold onto the confidence that there is always light for us, even in the darkest times, remaining always open to receiving that light, and to look always for opportunities to be the bearer of light to others.

Note: you can find transcripts of Rev. Budde’s sermons here.

Your Light Must Shine Before Others

I was reflecting on Jesus’ instruction in Matthew that “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” You are the light of the world, he tells his disciples, and a light is not meant to be hidden under a bushel basket.

We are sent out to proclaim God’s Word through our word and deed, and to do that effectively, we must put ourselves out there in a way that will be heard. We our meant to shine our light before others. But, we do so for the glory of God, not for our own glory.

Our motivation is key. The same act can be done for the glory of God or for self-aggrandizement. And so we always need to examine: am I promoting myself, or am I promoting God.

On the other hand, we can be overly cautious and hide our light out of fear of looking proud and self-promoting. Teresa of Avila tells of a young nun – a very talented woman – who resolved to become more humble. She decided that whenever a clever thought occurred to her during the Carmelites’ recreation period, she would remain silent. Teresa did not approve, commenting: “it is bad enough to be stupid by nature, without trying to be stupid by grace.”

We are given gifts to use for God’s work. Hiding our light is just as bad as using it for our own glory rather than for the glory of God.