Imagery of Light and Life in the Bible
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
- John 1:14
According to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery:
"The Bible is enveloped by the imagery of light, both literally and figuratively. At the beginning of the biblical narrative, physical light springs forth as the first created thing (Gen. 1:3-4). At the end of the story the light obliterates all traces of darkness: ‘And the night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light’ (Rev. 22:5). Between these two beacons the imagery of light makes nearly two hundred (200) appearances, with light emerging as one of the Bible’s major and most complex symbols. "
In the reading from the first chapter of John’s Gospel (vs. 1-14), we encounter several biblical themes that inform our understanding of the unique and nearly unfathomable hope found in the Christian faith.
The Apostle John speaks of: the Word who was present at Creation becoming flesh and dwelling among us (vs. 14); he speaks of “light shining in the darkness” and the inability of “darkness to understand the light” (vs. 5); we hear of a Light that gives light to every man coming into the world (vs. 9); and we learn of eyewitness testimony of human beings who actually witnessed these events in real time.
St. John says, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (vs.14).
Of these significant biblical themes, I want to focus on the imagery of “light” and “life” as they relate to the Incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus Christ – and – as these themes relate to our lives in the modern age.
You may be familiar with the story of the young boy who called out to his dad at bedtime because he was afraid of the sudden darkness that enveloped him as his bedroom light was turned off.
The boy’s father tried to comfort his son by assuring him there was no need to be afraid because Jesus was always with him.
The boy replied, “I know, Dad, but sometimes I need someone with skin on.”
While we can appreciate this story as cute and heart-warming, it also presents us with a profound image of what theologians believe actually happened in the incarnation.
When St. John writes, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (vs. 14), he is conveying the idea that God literally “put skin on” and entered into time and space as we know and experience it.
For contemporary Christians, we mainly associate the incarnation with the birth of the infant Jesus to Mary and Joseph.
This imagery of the infant Jesus in a manger surrounded by his parents, several animals, shepherds in the fields, singing angels and eventually the wise men is what occupies our imagination throughout the Christmas season.
This is the imagery informing the hymns we sing the prayers we pray throughout the Christmas season.
The original hearers of this text would have likely recalled a different scenario altogether. In the Old Testament, the “tent of meeting” was the place where God would speak to Moses face-to-face, as a man speaks to his friend (Ex. 33:11).
A pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance of the tent while Moses and the Lord conversed. Now, says the Apostle John, something significantly more tangible has taken place.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses hears the divine name spoken by God himself and this is followed by God’s word being written on two stone tablets. Now, John tells us, God’s Word, his Self-expression, has become flesh.
God with skin on.
Biblical scholar D.A. Carson in his commentary on The Gospel According to John notes:
"This is the supreme revelation. If we are to know God, neither rationalism nor irrational mysticism will suffice: the former reduces God to mere object, and the latter abandons all controls.
Even the revelation of antecedent Scripture cannot match this revelation, as the Epistle to the Hebrews also affirms in strikingly similar categories:
‘In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’ (Heb. 1:1-2).
The Word, God’s very Self-expression, who was both with God and was God, became flesh: he donned our humanity, save only our sin. God chose to make himself known, finally and ultimately,
in a real, historical man: ‘when “the Word became flesh”, God became man.’"
Behind the warmth of the Christmas season with all of its wonderful tastes and smells and memories of family and friends, is the profound reality of the purpose for God’s entrance into the world:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (Jn 3:16,17).
And so, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9). Yet, the dark world Jesus, the Word made flesh, entered into did not recognize the light nor did it welcome the intrusion of goodness into a world of darkness.
St. John wrote, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (Jn. 3:19,20).
Again, D.A. Carson notes:
"It seems as if John wants his readers to see in the Word both the light of creation and the light of redemption the Word brings in his incarnation."
Just a few days away from the end of 2020, we do not have to look too far, or recall from too long ago, the unseemly and unsettling images of noble causes turning chaotic and destructive as soon as the lights go out.
I imagine most of us will be haunted for some time by the images of last summer’s organized protests that turned into murderous riots as soon as night fell upon city after city.
Such modern images affirm the biblical witness of the Old Testament prophets to the Psalmists to New Testament writers like St. Paul who advised followers of Christ to:
Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful to even mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light become visible – and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said, ‘Wake up sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:11-16).
We are living in a time of acute anxiety, loneliness, financial insecurity, the constant threat of health risks in the form of a global pandemic, racial unrest and confusion . . . the list goes on and on.
In short, it would be easy and perhaps even natural for us to declare our age as one of darkness and simply give ourselves over to despair and hopelessness . . . but, we won’t do so precisely because of the reason for the Christmas season . . . the incarnation of God.
For Christ Jesus entered the world we occupy as the Word become flesh - God with skin on - for times such as these.
When darkness begins to creep in on us and threaten our sense of well-being as followers of Christ, we recall the voice of Jesus himself when he said,
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12) and “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness” (John 12:46).
I leave you this evening with the words of Jesus to his followers recorded in The Gospel According to St. Matthew:
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 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.
May you and your family enjoy a blessed Christmas season and may the Light of the Lord shine upon you all the days of your life.