WE CAN SAY THAT THE GOSPELS are woven around a string of images describing rather than defining how Christ relates to us. Some of these images are drawn from the temple worship (“the Lamb of God” – John 1:29). Others are taken from the history of Israel (“the bread which came down from heaven” – John 6:51) or the writings of the prophets (“the Son of Man” – Daniel 7:13). There are agricultural images (“I am the vine” – John 15:5) and images drawn from sheepherding (“I am the good shepherd” – John 10:11). Of all these images none is more basic to human life as it was lived then than images of light and darkness.
Christ as Light
The Lord refers to Himself as our light: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12). “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). As light He is our guide, enabling us to see the truth of God in a dark world.
But light is more than an image of Christ as our guide; it is in some way who Christ is in Himself. When He was transfigured on Mount Tabor the Lord Jesus was manifested as light. As Matthew describes it, “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). Mark adds, “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3). Luke describes this as “His glory” (Luke 9:32), a term that in Scripture suggests divinity.
This experience of Christ’s transfiguration has been understood in the Christian East as manifesting something of Christ’s deepest self. They saw this light on Mount Tabor as the divine energies of Christ revealed for our sake. As several Fathers described it, these energies are like the rays of the sun: not the sun itself (God’s inmost essence) but inseparable from it.
The Church took up this identification of Christ as light into the liturgy. One of the earliest examples is the vesper hymn to Christ as the “Radiant Light of the holy glory of the immortal Father.” First recorded in the Apostolic Constitutions, this is the oldest hymn apart from the psalms still used in the Church.
The Lord Jesus is also glorified as light in a number of other liturgical prayers, such as:
- The Prayer of the First Hour
- “O Christ, true Light enlightening everyone who comes into the world…”
- The Liturgy of the Presanctified
- “The light of Christ enlightens all mankind”
- Troparion of the Transfiguration
- “Let Your eternal light shine also upon us sinners.”
- The Mystery of Holy Illumination
- The foremost expression of Christ as our light in the liturgy is, of course, holy baptism. Thus the newly-illumined is clothed with a white garment, called the “Robe of light,” symbol of the baptized’s union with Christ.
How Does Christ Enlighten Us?
In Eastern Christian thought Christ first of all enlightens us by making God manifest to us. It is through Christ that the knowledge of the Holy Trinity came to be known. As we say repeatedly in the Divine Liturgy, “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity…”
While this revelation climaxed in the bestowal of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, it was revealed in part during Christ’s earthly life as well. After Christ’s resurrection His disciples came to understand that the Father and His Son were one in a unique way, a way which we see proclaimed in the prologue to John’s Gospel: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known” (John 1:18).
The mystery of Christ as Son of God was not imparted as information, but through experience. The disciples came to know that Christ was one with the Father by sharing His life. At the conclusion of their time with Him, just before His arrest, the result of their lived experience became clear. “His disciples said to Him, ‘See, now You are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech! Now we are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should question You. By this we believe that You came forth from God’” (John 16:29-30).
In the same way the Holy Spirit was revealed to the disciples through their experience of receiving Him. The Spirit, in turn, illumined them to understand “the mystery which was hidden from eternity and unknown to the angels” – God’s plan to renew creation in Christ.
Later Christians would describe the relationship of the Father and the Son as the mystery of the Trinity and see Christ’s greatest teaching as the revelation of that mystery. In the exaposteilarion of the Transfiguration our Church proclaims its faith that Christ is the Light who reveals the Holy Trinity to the world. “O Word, un-transformable Light, the Light of the unborn Father, by Your light which has shown today on Tabor, we have seen the Father’s light and the Spirit’s light, illumining the whole creation.”
Believers as Light
Towards the end of the Lord Jesus’ earthly ministry He said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). This gives us the context of what He had told His hearers, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who 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). After His ascension it would be the disciples whose good works would draw those around them to glorify God.
While Christ is the Light in the truest sense, those who are in Christ shine with a kind of reflected light due to their union with Him. We reflect the light of Christ when we too manifest God and His love for mankind through the way we live.
The icon is a familiar pointer to this truth for us. An icon glows with a reflected light when a lamp or candle is lit before it. The lamp is the source of the light, but it is the icon which attracts us. Similarly people will be attracted to the divine Light when they see it reflected in the lives of believers.
Perhaps the most important way of reflecting the light of Christ is by being present to those who are struggling with the darkness of confusion and despair. There words are not necessary – and perhaps even counterproductive. Simply by being present to the fearful can we reflect the light of Christ who is the Lover of Mankind.
Like a child left alone in the dark, I cry out to You, Son of David, taking refuge in the shadow of Your wings until the storms of destruction pass by. Though my soul is among lions who roar out that there is no salvation for me, my heart is steadfast and I sing these praises:
Jesus, sight for the blind!
Jesus, wealth for the beggar!
Jesus, harbor for those assailed by storms!
Jesus, fortress for all who are besieged!
Jesus, Your glory is above the heavens!
Jesus, Your radiance fills the earth!
Jesus, exaltation of the transcendent Father!
Jesus, bestower of the life-giving Spirit!
Jesus, hear my cry when all others are deaf!
Jesus, call me to Your throne and save me!
Jesus, bottomless ocean of mercy!
Jesus, infinite firmament of truth!
Jesus, light to those in darkness, glory to You!