“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. … And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:16, 20-21)
According to Genesis, the first thing God did was to create light, for without light creation could go no further. In this reading from Saint John’s Gospel, God’s loving gift of his son brings a special light into the world.
Light is a universal symbol of the divine, of all that is good, holy and God-given. It can be a blinding flash – think of St Paul on the road to Damascus – It can be small sparks – fireflies, candle flames, stars – which coalesce into a greater light which cannot be overwhelmed by darkness. We are the small lights which with God’s help can create a bigger light reflecting his glory. Darkness on the other hand represents evil, sin and despair, abandonment by God.
Milton the blind poet understood this very well. In his long dramatic poem Samson Agonistes, Samson who had been blinded and enslaved by the Philistines mourns
Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct,
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverábly dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!
Why am I thus bereav’d thy prime decree?
Eleven years ago, the National Gallery in London, England curated an exhibition of paintings under the title “Festival of Light”, which explored the universal symbolism of light in different traditions. The gallery published a “Trail” round the exhibition which with its pictures and commentary says everything I wanted to say about light as a religious symbol. It’s too big to reproduce here, but I beg you to take a look. You can save the pdf to browse at your leisure.
This picture of a straggly little tree in my neighbour’s back yard struggling to survive the winter represents to me the loveliness of God’s creation; nobody planted the tree and nobody looked after it and yet it grew. The picture also represents the power of light. The sun’s rays bathing the tree suggest how God cherishes creation, including us struggling mortals. God’s love grounds us and protects us.
Pablo Neruda captures this feeling in his Ode to Enchanted Light. I will finish with this poem, which reminds us that Advent is a season of hope, anticipating the coming joy of Christ’s birth.
Ode to Enchanted Light by Pablo Neruda
Under the trees light
has dropped from the top of the sky,
like a green
latticework of branches,
on every leaf,
drifting down like clean
A cicada sends
its sawing song
high into the empty air.
The world is
a glass overflowing
— Ann Elbourne