One of the easiest, most common, most readily understandable metaphors is that of “light” representing goodness and “darkness” either evil or ignorance. This is of course a favorite motif throughout the Bible, including in three of this Sunday’s four traditional readings.
The question is, has this metaphor become trite from overuse, so that it no longer has the resonance and power it once did? Or, conversely, can the metaphor still — well — enlighten us, in ways other imagery doesn’t?
In this week’s readings, to be specific, Isaiah tells us that “the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Palm 27 says that “the Lord is my light and my salvation.” Matthew directly quotes from that same Isaiah passage.
Elsewhere, the Biblical imagery of salvific light of course finds its most familiar expression in the third verse of the entire Bible (“God said ‘let there be light'”) and in the fourth and fifth verses in the Gospel of John about the “Word” being “the light of all mankind” which the darkness “has not overcome.”
Likewise, my own bookshelves are filled with both novels and books of essays that repeatedly use the same idea, often in their titles, of light as indicative of supreme goodness. Young adult fantasy literature; naturalists with spiritual dimensions; theologians; psychologists; poets; historians: All use this leitmotif.
So, again, does its familiarity lead, if not to contempt, at least to a situation where the concept loses its power?
The answer may, or should, lie in the distinction between how the metaphor is used in those secular sources versus how it is used in the Bible. For all the powerful, wondrous good that “light” represents in fiction or in poetry, it still (usually) lacks one essential element that Biblical light incorporates, an element that never, ever allows its power to fade into triteness.
In the Bible, the light does not just instruct, or show the right way, or show where the good lies (although all of those graces are important); instead, it does something more: It saves.
When the psalm says “the Lord is my light and my salvation,” it is using a frequent Biblical-literary device of creating emphasis by using, in the same conjunctive phrase, words intended to be synonymous. In Isaiah, the explication of the “light that shined” in “a land of deep darkness” is not a mere gift of understanding or of hope, but more: “the yoke of their burden” and “the rod of their oppressor” has been “broken.” (Again, the oppressed people are “saved” from their oppression.) And, of course, when applied to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, that light is quite literally the savior of the world, one who proclaims that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” and who goes about “curing every disease and every sickness among the people [emphasis added].”
If we fail to understand, indeed if we fail to feel in our very bones or deepest self, the difference between hope (as valuable as that is) and actual salvation, then we have not yet let the light fully enough enter our own consciousness or our own souls.
Salvation is in some respects a difficult subject, hard to fully grasp and worthy of many full essays. Space in this one short essay only permits the assertion, the recognition, that salvation is different not just in degree but in kind from any other metaphorical connotation of “light.” To seek it is to simultaneously humble oneself and yet to embrace the greatest joy and glory that can be.
The point, though, is not just to individually revel in salvation. A salvation not shared is a lonely one, which is no salvation at all.
That is why, once we have let the light shine into our own souls — once we have accepted the need for the salvation to come — another part of the Bible tells us explicitly to share the light as a way to bring others, too, to salvation.
Matthew 5:15-16 instructs us: “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
We are called not just to follow the light but to become part of it. That is the message and the duty of our faith. That is the paradise we are called to share.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.