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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Holy Week in Chester 3: “I am the Light of the World”

Reading: John 9.1-12
In our Holy Week journey through the I AM sayings of St John’s Gospel, we have looked at the Door, and at the Resurrection and the Life. Tonight, we come to “I am the Light of the World”. 
Light is a universal word we find in all the world’s religions. And like last night’s life, light is one of the great words of St John. The two are linked together in the very first paragraph of the gospel that we read at Christmas time, “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. That passage in turn looks back to the creation story in the Book of Genesis where the first words God speaks are “Let there be light!”  “And there was light” the text says, “and God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. The light he called Day, and the darkness Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
In Genesis, light and darkness, day and night aren’t yet distinguished by moral or spiritual values. Light is to see by, and the daily rhythm of light and darkness is given in order to structure time. But in St John it is very different. Night time and darkness are dangerous and risky. When Judas left the upper room to hand Jesus over to the authorities, he “went out”, says John, “and it was night” – an observation left hanging in the air as its own commentary on the darkness that had overtaken the betrayer’s soul. “And this is the judgment” says Jesus earlier, “That the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Or as he says on the very threshold of Holy Week, “the light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light so that you may become children of light.”
All of which heightens the significance of Jesus’ saying, “I am the light of the world.” He has already spoken these words in the previous chapter and added: “whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life”. But now, Jesus embeds those same words in the important story of the healing of the man who was born blind. Like the raising of Lazarus last night, this sign is another disclosure of God’s activity in the world, his “works” as John calls them. “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 
But light has its different aspects. In St John, the Light of the World enables us to see in things in new ways. C. S. Lewis famously said that he believed that the sun had risen, not because he gazed directly at it but because by its light he could see the world, other people and himself. Illumination is a key stage in the classic spiritual path. Not for nothing did our eighteenth-century forebears speak about enlightenment as an event (God-given, some said) in the journey of scientific method and intellectual self-awareness. But if you were the poet William Blake, you would describe looking into the sun as gazing at angels. So you did that with great care, knowing how risky it is to expose yourself to such a fierce, unforgiving light. Indeed, one of the Psalms talks about God wrapping himself in light as in a garment, an idea taken up in the hymn Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes. ’Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee it goes, verses rich in theological wisdom. The paradox is that light conceals as much as it reveals. Moses prayed, “Lord, show me your glory”, but is warned to protect himself in the cleft of the rock because if he so much as glimpses Divinity as he really is, it will kill him. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality” says T.S. Eliot, least of all when that reality is God. 
St John plays with some of these themes in the course of his gospel. In particular, he takes us back to Moses in the prologue we keep returning to. Where Moses had asked to behold God’s glory but had needed to be shielded from experiencing its fulness, John tells us that in the Word made flesh who lived among us, “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”. His claim is as high as it could possibly be. And to underline it, as he embarks on telling the story of Jesus’ works among humankind, the great “signs” he performs, John says that he “revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him”. 
And it is not long before Jesus begins to speak of the destiny that awaits him, his own suffering and death. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” he says; and later, in his prayer on the very threshold of his passion, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do”. We know where it is that Jesus finishes his work, for he tells us so in his last word from the cross: “It is accomplished”. If you had asked St John, where do we see God’s glory most clearly, where do we see his light shining most steadily, he would answer, at Golgotha, at the cross where love’s work is completed, where the crucified Lord lays down his life for his friends, where the Son of Man is enthroned as the king who is lifted up so that he may draw all people to himself. In the Fourth Gospel, the cross, the last and greatest sign of glory, represents not defeat but God’s work achieved, completed, victorious.
It’s worth lingering on this point about the Johannine cross. It seems perverse to use words like light and glory of that darkest and cruellest of places, Golgotha, the “skull”. But that paradox, seeing glory in a place of ignominy and shame, light in the midst of darkness and desolation, is precisely John’s point. “There is in God a deep and dazzling darkness” says one mystical poet. It’s not far from St Paul’s language about seeing God’s wisdom in the folly of the cross, his power in its weakness. “It is accomplished” proclaims Jesus in the last word from the cross in St John. Throughout the gospel, he emphasises how Jesus has come into the world to do the work of God and complete it, or as he says of Jesus in the upper room, to love to the very end. So tetelestai, “it is finished”, is the most important word in the Passion narrative. 
On Good Friday, Bach’s St John Passion will be performed in the Cathedral. I wonder how Bach’s setting of that last word will be sung by the bass who takes the part of Christus. It’s a falling line in Bach’s music, Es ist vollbracht.  I hope it will be with firmness and confidence, not resignation and defeat. I have a theory that just as the last words from the cross in the other gospels are quotations from the Psalms, John’s “it is finished” refers to the conclusion of the Passion Psalm 22. Matthew and Mark tell how the dying Jesus quotes the first line, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Could it be that St John alludes to the triumphant last line of that Psalm that moves from utter despair to gratitude and praise: “future generations will proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it”. He has performed it. All is done. Tetelestai. That’s glory.
And because it is done, the cross inevitably points beyond itself to the new day that begins at Easter. As we saw last night in the story of the raising of Lazarus, throughout John’s gospel, resurrection seems to be enfolded into the passion and crucifixion in a single movement that the author describes as Jesus’ “going to the Father”. When the Easter story begins and Mary goes to the tomb, it is still dark. I think it’s meant to point up the contrast between what she and the disciples don’t yet know, can’t yet grasp about the empty tomb, and what the emerging light of day will reveal to be the dawn of a new glory, that Jesus is risen and is present to his people until he returns to his Father. 
So the Light of the World gives sight not only to the man born blind, but to the whole of creation, for “the true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world”. For St John, the incarnation, the signs, the crucifixion, the resurrection are like the seamless robe for which the soldiers cast lots in his passion story. They all disclose the glory that is revealed as the Light of the world that he loves, says John, “to the end”. This Holy Week we celebrate the great light that shines into the shadowy places of life, brings warmth and vitality to a cold dark world, and shows us the way back to him so that we can learn to be God’s people once again.
Here is how Malcolm Guite puts it in his sonnet on the Light of the World.
I see your world in light that shines behind me,
Lit by a sun whose rays I cannot see,
The smallest gleam of light still seems to find me
Or find the child who’s hiding deep inside me.
I see your light reflected in the water,
Or kindled suddenly in someone’s eyes,
It shimmers through the living leaves of summer,
Or spills from silver veins in leaden skies,
It gathers in the candles at our vespers
It concentrates in tiny drops of dew
At times it sings for joy, at times it whispers,
But all the time it calls me back to you.
I follow you upstream through this dark night
My saviour, source, and spring, my life and light.
(c) Malcolm Guite. With permission 

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