‘This light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it.’ No one receives it but the poor in spirit who have stripped themselves of self-love and self-will. There are many who have lived for forty years in material poverty without having ever beheld this light. They understand what it is, they have taken it in with their senses and grasped it with their intellect, but in the depth of their souls it is alien and repugnant to them.
“My Beloved, strive with all your might, with every effort of body and soul, to behold this true light, so that you may return to the source where it shines in all its brightness. Long for it, pray for it, do all that you can, with all the strength you can summon. Entreat those who love God to help you. Cling to those who cling to God, so that they may draw you with them into God. May our loving God help us to attain this.
~Johannes Tauler, Sermon 10 (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 53-54.
Much of the language of the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle revolves around light and darkness. This metaphor is suggested by some of the lessons from Isaiah and St. John in particular, including John 1:5, quoted in Tauler’s sermon above.
Even now, the true light is flooding into the world, in a glorious dawn of grace and truth. This light is utterly gratuitous, i.e. unearned. It is also completely efficacious, in and of itself. Only the obstacles we present (Tauler identifies self-love and self-will) prevent us from participating more fully in this marvelous gift.
Liberation theologies focused on race have pointed out some rather fundamental problems with the root metaphor of light and darkness, closely correlated as it is with contrasts between good and evil and knowledge and ignorance. Those focused on disabilities, for their part, have asked some profound questions about the use of the notion of “blindness” in Christian spiritual texts. Likewise, feminist theologies have identified real problems with an excessive focus on the sins of self-love and self-will in a society where many oppressed people struggle to affirm their human dignity and the claims of justice.
And yet, there is a powerful natural symbol at play here as days grow short and nights grow long. And so, we continue to confess that the power of the long cold winter of death is broken by the dawning of the Great Light. We continue to confess, whatever language we may use, that we present various kinds of obstacles to the Light, whether those obstacles are classical sins of self-love and self-will or their mirror image in various forms of human bondage and internalized oppression. We seek companions who know God’s ways, who can show us the Light and help us grow in holiness.
And we long for the Desire of the Nations, Jesus Christ, and the saving light of the Gospel.
For we know that in God’s light, all are one, without becoming the same, in a community of equals in which “none is afore or after other.”
And so, we await the coming of that Light in a stable, at the edge of town, among simple people who remember their Maker and Redeemer and rejoice to see the glory of God shine forth in the face of a poor and humble child.