Christ, Light of the World
by Helen Hull Hitchcock
One of the most universal images in all of Christianity is of Christ as the Light of the World. Small children sing, “The Light of the World is Jesus”, “Jesus bids us shine with a clear pure light, like a little candle burning in the night”. Jesus and Mary are shown with halos and so are the apostles and all the saints as a sign of holiness. The symbol of light associated with Christ seems so obvious we don’t even think about it. But Christ as the Light of the World is a very powerful symbol as the title of Pope Benedict’s new book-interview attests.
Light is the opposite of darkness, of course and even young babies know the difference, as all mothers know. Little children are often afraid of the dark. We leave their doors open a crack or put night lights in their rooms so they won’t be afraid. Why does darkness make us afraid? First of all, we can’t see in the dark. Darkness conceals reality it hides what is truly there. And leaves us all alone, defenseless “in the dark”. This is why darkness is scary. Little kids imagine there may be monsters under the bed. But we adults also don’t want to go out alone in the dark of night without light. What evils might be out there lurking in the dark?
So, as a purely physical phenomenon, light overcomes darkness reveals what is hidden, concealed, and makes it possible for us to see our surroundings clearly. We don’t have to depend on our imagination. We see reality what’s truly there. Light reveals the truth.
But there is another aspect of natural light the warmth it generates. Light is also necessary for anything to grow, to flourish. Light is intimately connected with life. Without light, life is impossible. At a really primitive and universal level, this is what light signifies and has always signified for all human beings everywhere and for all time.
Light is so fundamental to the world that God created light on the first day of creation. The first verses of Genesis describe this: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep”.
Then God created light: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’. And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day” (Genesis 1:3-5).
The image of Christ as the Light of the World is repeated throughout Scripture. In Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of the Messiah we read of the people who have abandoned God, “if they speak not according to this [God’s] word, it is because there is no light in them, and they shall look unto the earth; and behold trouble and darkness, dimness of anguish; and they shall be driven to darkness” (Isaiah 8:20, 22).
Nevertheless, Isaiah says, “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.… For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of His government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon His kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7).
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught us, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it gives light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
But Jesus also said “I am the light of the world…” In the Gospel of John (8:12), Jesus, speaking to the scribes and Pharisees, says, “I am the light of the world. He that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (This was just after they challenged Jesus to judge the sinful woman whom they were about to stone “according to the law of Moses”.) These men would have immediately recognized the reference to Isaiah that Jesus was proclaiming to them that He is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy the Messiah.
Lumen Gentium Light of the World
We can see that this powerful image of Christ as the Light of the World has continued throughout the history of the Church and in our own time along with a parallel image: people who believe in and are united with Him contain His light, so we also become “the light of the world”, “proclaiming the Gospel to every creature”.
Lumen Gentium, the title of the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic Constitution on the Church (November 21, 1964), is also its opening sentence: Lumen gentium “Christ is the Light of nations”. It continues:
Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church. Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.
A bit later in the first chapter, “The Mystery of the Church”, it says:
In the human nature united to Himself, the Son of God, by overcoming death through His own death and resurrection, redeemed man and re-molded him into a new creation (Galatians, 6:15, II Corinthians 5:17). By communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body.
In that Body the life of Christ is poured into the believers who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ who suffered and was glorified. [§7]
…The Church, “like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God”, “announcing the cross and death of the Lord until He comes” (cf. I Corinthians 11:26). By the power of the risen Lord it is given strength that it might, in patience and in love, overcome its sorrows and its challenges, both within itself and from without, and that it might reveal to the world, faithfully though darkly, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it will be manifested in full light. [§8]
Mysteries of Light
In his apostolic letter on the Rosary, Rosarium Virginis Mariae (October 16, 2002), Pope John Paul II added to the Rosary the Mysteries of Light, or Luminous Mysteries, specifically focused on Christ’s mission in the world. He says that the Rosary, though a prayer to Mary, is actually Christocentric. In describing the new mysteries of light, the pope writes:
21. Moving on from the infancy and the hidden life in Nazareth to the public life of Jesus, our contemplation brings us to those mysteries which may be called in a special way “mysteries of light”. Certainly the whole mystery of Christ is a mystery of light. He is the “light of the world” (John 8:12).…
Pope Benedict explained the significance for Christians of light overcoming darkness, a symbol of particular meaning for us during the days anticipating Christmas. In a Wednesday audience, December 21, 2005, he said,
The symbol of light … is one of the symbols richest in spiritual significance.
In our hemisphere, the Feast of Christmas coincides with the days of the winter solstice, after which the daylight time gradually lengthens, in accordance with the sequence of the seasons.
This helps us understand better the theme of light that overcomes the darkness. It is an evocative symbol of a reality that touches the innermost depths of the human being: I am referring to the light of good that triumphs over evil, the light of love that overcomes hatred, the light of life that defeats death. Christmas makes us think of this inner light, the divine light that returns to propose anew to us the proclamation of the definitive victory of God’s love over sin and death.… The Savior awaited by the people is hailed as the “Rising Star”, the star that points out the way to men and women and guides them as they journey through the shadows and dangers of the world toward the salvation promised by God and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
…Let us remember in particular, as we look at the streets and squares of the cities decorated with dazzling lights, that these lights refer us to another light, invisible to the eyes but not to the heart. While we admire them, while we light the candles in churches or illuminate the crib and the Christmas tree in our homes, may our souls be open to the true spiritual light brought to all people of good will. The God-with-us [Immanuel] born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary, is the Star of our lives!. “Oh rising Star, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: shine on those lost in the darkness of death!”
Christ is our Light: Our life, our hope, the source of all truth and love without which we cannot live. This is a mystery of our faith and it also has a deep meaning for each one of us, as part of the Mystical Body of Christ. We are to become that light, in order that we may bring His life and hope and truth and love to others.
When we pray, and especially when we receive Communion at Mass, we are “lit from the inside” with the light of Christ. In this way we are illumined, enlightened and having received this gift, it is our task to bring this life-giving Light to others, to pass it along to our children, friends, family, everyone we encounter. We must not “hide our light under a bushel”.
Pope Benedict used another very striking image to describe the effect of this interior light within us, and how this relates to our vocations within the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ within the Church. In his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, during his visit to the United States in April 2008, he spoke of “the stained glass windows, which flood the interior [of the church] with mystic light”:
From the outside, those windows are dark, heavy, even dreary. But once one enters the church, they suddenly come alive; reflecting the light passing through them, they reveal all their splendor. Many writers here in America we can think of Nathaniel Hawthorne have used the image of stained glass to illustrate the mystery of the Church herself. It is only from the inside, from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit. It follows that we, who live the life of grace within the Church’s communion, are called to draw all people into this mystery of light.
This is no easy task in a world which can tend to look at the Church, like those stained glass windows, “from the outside”: a world which deeply senses a need for spirituality, yet finds it difficult to “enter into” the mystery of the Church. Even for those of us within, the light of faith can be dimmed by routine, and the splendor of the Church obscured by the sins and weaknesses of her members. It can be dimmed too, by the obstacles encountered in a society which sometimes seems to have forgotten God and to resent even the most elementary demands of Christian morality. You, who have devoted your lives to bearing witness to the love of Christ and the building up of His Body, know from your daily contact with the world around us how tempting it is at times to give way to frustration, disappointment and even pessimism about the future. In a word, it is not always easy to see the light of the Spirit all about us, the splendor of the Risen Lord illuminating our lives and instilling renewed hope in His victory over the world (cf. John 16:33).
Yet the word of God reminds us that, in faith, we see the heavens opened, and the grace of the Holy Spirit lighting up the Church and bringing sure hope to our world. “O Lord, my God”, the Psalmist sings, “when you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:30). These words evoke the first creation, when the Spirit of God hovered over the deep (cf. Genesis 1:2). And they look forward to the new creation, at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and established the Church as the first fruits of a redeemed humanity (cf. John 20:22-23). These words summon us to ever deeper faith in God’s infinite power to transform every human situation, to create life from death, and to light up even the darkest night. And they make us think of another magnificent phrase of Saint Irenaeus: “where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace” (Adv. Haer. III, 24, 1). (Emphasis added.)
In our part of the world, the darkest time of the year is precisely the time when Christians prepare to celebrate the advent of the Light of Christ into the world and anticipate the triumphant return of our Savior in glory at the end of time. Preparing for Christmas is the special season of the year when we prepare ourselves to receive that gift. Through special prayers and devotions lighting the Advent wreath, praying the Christmas Novena, lighting the Christmas tree, giving gifts we can draw closer to the true source of light.
In his message to the Church and the world for Christmas 2005, Pope Benedict wrote, “The modern age is often seen as an awakening of reason from its slumbers, humanity’s enlightenment after an age of darkness. Yet without the light of Christ, the light of reason is not sufficient to enlighten humanity and the world. For this reason, the words of the Christmas Gospel: ‘the true Light that enlightens every man was coming into this world’ (John 1:9) resound now more than ever as a proclamation of salvation”.
The light that penetrates darkness
The image of the light of Christ a life-giving light that penetrates the darkness of our earthly life, a light that illuminates our clouded minds, a light that guides us, dispelling the gloom of confusion, anguish and despair symbolized by lighted candles, is presented at every celebration of Mass throughout the entire year. This symbol is especially significant during Advent, Christmastide, and Eastertide.
During Advent we light candles on the Advent wreath in our homes and churches one every Sunday until all four are lighted and throughout the Christmas season the four white candles remind us of the Birth of the Son of God His “advent” into our world in our flesh. The lights on our Christmas trees also represent the coming of the Light of the world.
On Candlemas, February 2, celebrating the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, we receive blessed candles as reminders of His light. The prayer of Simeon (the Nunc Dimittus canticle of Compline) significantly speaks of the Light of the Holy Child: “Now let your servant depart in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel”. (Luke 2:29-32)
At the Easter Vigil, in the dark of night, a candle representing our Risen Savior is ceremonially lighted, and the entire congregation receives light for our many small candles from this one Light of Christ symbolic of our unity in Christ in bringing His light, His truth, and His salvation to illumine our dark world.
Lumen Christi! Deo Gratias!
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