CONTRASTING OPPOSITES WAS a popular rhetorical device during the time of St Paul. The Lord Himself used the method, usually contrasting concrete things such as new wine and old wineskins or the plank in one’s own eye vs. the speck in one’s brother’s eye. He pointed to those who would be first vs. those who would be last in the Kingdom of God. “Many are called but few are chosen” He noted, and this became a kind of refrain commenting on Gospel incidents (e.g. Matthew 20:16).
When St. Paul wrote to communities where believing Jews and their converts often tended to maintain their allegiance to the Law while accepting Christ as the Messiah, he focused on the contrast between those who found their salvation in keeping the Torah (Law) and those who found it by believing in Christ. But Christ alone, Paul insisted, is the source of our salvation and only through faith are we joined with Him.
Not having to keep the Law made some people think that they could do whatever they wanted. Paul responded with another contrast: that between flesh and spirit. “The Law is fulfilled in this one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14) he affirmed. Our fallen passions – the flesh – push us to abuse our neighbor instead through sexual immorality, hatred, selfish ambitions and the like. But living in the Spirit produces love, joy, peace and the other characteristics St Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Darkness and Light in St. Paul
When Paul writes to the Ephesians he speaks of darkness and light to contrast a life lived in ignorance of God vs. a life illumined by the knowledge of God. When people are “alienated from the life of God” they walk “in the futility of their minds” (Ephesians 4:17-18) like pagans. Separated from God, they try to figure things out on their own and that inevitably leads to disaster: epitomized, in Paul’s words, by lewdness and every kind of excess.
St. Paul included idolatry as another example of our futile self-determination. Of course, actual idolatry was practiced in the ancient world for centuries, dying out in some places only in the fifth or sixth century. But St John Chrysostom, commenting on this passage, said that, for those who claim to worship Christ, idolatry may mean something else. Giving service to our passions, he argued, is actually worship of Venus, the goddess of love; allowing wrath to absorb us is actually worship of Mars, the god of war. You more truly worship by your deeds and practices than by your rituals, he insisted, and this is the higher kind of worship! (Homily 18 on Ephesians).
St Paul has been criticized for singling out sexual immorality as the height of godlessness. Paul, they say, saw licentiousness as the gravest sin, worse than any other. Note, however, that Paul only starts by focusing on promiscuity. He then goes on to include all kinds of behavior which, he teaches, are equally incompatible with the life in Christ. He names untruthful speech, unresolved anger, theft, and unseemly language as signs of – and here he introduces another contrast – the old man (vs. the new man created according to God).
It is perhaps the moralizing of some Christians in earlier days rather than St. Paul which is responsible for our ignoring unresolved anger or lack of mutual love while focusing of sexual morality. It may be argued, however, that, our sexual failings are, in fact, weathervanes indicating our need for self-satisfaction at all costs.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Church when lust and greed drive its members, including their leaders, to turn their backs on the light. Then we see the chilling force of Christ’s own words, “If the light that is in you is darkness, how great must it be” (Mt 6:23).
Christ as Light in St John
The contrast of light and darkness here concerns our ethical behavior; elsewhere in the New Testament this imagery suggests something more. In the First Epistle of St John we read, “This is the message which we have heard from Him [Christ] and declare to you: that God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). There is something about God’s very being that can be described as light.
Later in the same epistle we are told that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The Fathers came to see this love as the expression of the eternal relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and, by extension, between the Trinity and all creation, particularly mankind. In a similar way they came to see light as the expression of God’s holiness, especially in the flesh of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, with His holy transfiguration on Mt. Tabor as the preeminent experience of that light in His flesh.
Baptism as Illumination
The Fathers regularly spoke of baptism as the mystery of illumination whereby we are filled with the light of Christ. In The Life in Christ St. Nicholas Cabasilas writes, quoting St. John Chrysostom, “From our baptism, our soul, purified by the Spirit, is more resplendent than the sun. Not only do we contemplate the glory of God, but we receive again its luster. Just as pure silver, when exposed to its rays, completely sparkles – not only by its own nature but due to the brightness of the sun – so the soul, purified by baptism, is made brighter than silver, receiving from the Spirit the ray of glory such as to possess a proper brilliance such as only the Spirit can communicate. … That which Moses bore on his forehead, the saints bore in the depths of their souls, but with far more brilliance…”
The Taboric Light
This baptismal radiance is so commonly obscured in us by our subsequent acts of sin and neglect that we see Cabasilas’ words as hyperbole, exaggeration. Yet it is this very light which iconographers seek to portray by depicting haloes in the icons of the saints.
In addition we have numerous examples of a tangible light – called the Taboric light, in other words, the light experienced on Mt. Tabor – not only in the souls of certain saints, reflecting their union with Christ the Light, but in their bodies as well. Perhaps the most famous of them is St. Seraphim of Sarov, whose disciple, Nicholas Motovilov, described the event in detail.
The recognized saints of the Church are not the only ones to reflect this light. The twentieth-century Romanian elder, Fr Dumitru Bejan tells how in the late 1960s he saw, unobserved, two old monks who always stayed behind in church after Matins. “After everyone had left they would lie outstretched on the floor of the church in the form of the Cross and begin to pray with tears to the Savior, asking for mercy, forgiveness, and absolution of sins….As Fr Dumitru watched them pray, to his amazement he saw a translucent flame of light rise and intensify over their heads. Seeing this flame of the grace of the Holy Spirit manifest, Fr Dumitru fell to his knees and joined the two elders in prayer” (Balan, Shepherd of Souls, p. 140-141).