Monday, February 05, 2007

Retreat: God is Light

This is the third in a series of posts dedicated to the Sons and Daughters of the Light retreat. First was an overview of the weekend. Second was a lengthy and detailed recap of the events. What follow are thoughts about the retreat from my own perspective and experiences.

God is light and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)

The title and theme of the retreat was "Sons and Daughters of the Light". At first, I thought it was a rather "enlightened" title, slightly pretentious. But that disappeared completely when Sam gave his introductory talk on Friday night. We weren't going to the retreat to identify (and separate or sequester) ourselves as "Sons and Daughters of the Light", we were at the retreat because we recognized ourselves as the adopted sons and daughters of God, the True Light of the World. The weekend was an opportunity to renew the recognition, to remember our responsibilities, and to strengthen one another in our lives of faith.

Light receives a lot of attention in Scripture, from the first book to the last. Genesis 1:3 tells us that God began creation of the universe through the Logos, His Word: And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. That this word that God spoke was indeed His Word, Saint John attests to in the opening verses of the gospel (John 1:1-5,14):
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God;
all things were made through him,
and without him was not anything made that was made.
In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it...
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth;
we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.
These words clearly identify the Word of God to be that which was made flesh in Jesus Christ. So Jesus, the Word of God, the Logos, is also the Light of all creation. And as God is one God in three Persons, God is Light. In his transfiguration, Jesus's face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light (Matt 17:2). In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, in its final chapters, John describes a vision of the new Jerusalem, the new holy city of God (Rev 21:1-2,22-23):
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband... And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
And then again in Rev 22:5 he writes And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever. The Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, the perfect sacrifice, is Light, the same Light that founded the universe, the same Light that the darkness will never overcome.

Jesus identifies himself as "the light of the world" (John 8:12; 9:5) and says we can become "sons of the light" (John 12:36). But Jesus also says that we are the light of the world and that our light must shine so that others may see the good we do and give glory to our heavenly Father (Matt 5:14-16). It is important to understand that we are the light only because he is the light: we do not shine, but Jesus shines in us, since he is the source of all our good works. The moon does not shine of itself, but reflects the light from the sun; it is likewise with us. As Saint Paul wrote, not I, but the grace of God which is with me (1 Cor 15:10).

This quest for finding the source of the light was an issue of contention in the early church. At the beginning of that same letter, Paul asks the church in Corinth if Christ is divided: For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor 1:11-13) In identifying themselves as belonging to anyone other than Christ, they were identifying the source of their new lives as that other person, not as the only one through whom we are made new. It would be the same as me saying I am a "Father Bob-ian" or a "Bishop Paul-ian" or even a "Pope Benedict-ian" rather than a Christian. I might follow their examples (just as Paul offers himself as an example in Phil 3:17), but I do not belong to them instead of Christ. The Franciscans do not "belong" to Saint Francis of Assisi, they follow his model, the way in which he belonged to Christ.

So now I ask you to imagine yourself in the vastness of space. You are staring ahead, and can see objects in your vision that appear to be giving off light. But as you near them, you notice they are not the source of that light, they are only reflecting it. Behind them is the same darkness you see in front of yourself.

So you turn towards the source of the light. It is a powerful light, with an intensity in its brightness far beyond the objects'. In its light you are illuminated, and you see yourself as the light sees you. You notice, then, when you turn aside from that light, there is shadow; if you turn your back to the light, you cannot see it (though it can still see you), and you see only your own shadow, your own voidness of light.

So you turn towards the source of the light. You recognize that it must be the source of all light, the source of everything. But it is brighter than your eyes can handle. You hold up your hand to shade your eyes. You squint. You close your eyes, but the light still permeates your eyelids. You can't ignore that light. But it is too bright for you, so you turn away from it and focus your attention on some other objects on which it shines. Then you notice that some of these objects do appear to be giving off light. Unlike the other objects which shone only where the light touched them, these objects are illuminated from every angle. They do not hurt your eyes to look at, but as you look closer, you become alarmed. They aren't giving off the light, the light appears to be passing right through them, as though they were only transparent objects with no substance.

So you turn towards the source of the light. You want to see the truth of the matter. You resolve yourself not to shield your eyes from its intensity. You circle the light, and find it shines in all directions. All the while, you never take your eyes off it.
Have you ever stared at an active incandescent light bulb? At first, all you see is a glowing bulb of light. But the more you stare, the more your eyes adjust to the brightness, and you can begin to see the internal workings of the bulb: you can see the filament, the individual complexities that make the bulb work.
Your eyes begin to adjust to this powerful light, and you begin to see inside of it. It is not some unformed cosmic lump, it is a precise and defined entity, though you cannot seem to bring yourself to define it. You see into the light and recognize that the light sees into you. It is a living light. Father, Son, and Spirit, it lives: the very nature of its infinite existence (the Father), the filament inside which seems to be shining directly at you (the Son), even the very waves and particles of light which emit from it and permeate you (the Spirit). No longer is it just "some light", it is the light, the only light, the Light of all creation. You hold your hand up, and are surprised that you can see the back of your hand -- the side facing you, not the light. You are suddenly afraid you are becoming transparent, that the light is just passing through you.

So you turn towards the source of the light. And all at once you feel that the light is not passing through you, it is living in you. It is not passing through you, it is refracting inside you and shining out from you in all directions. You have not lost your substance, your substance has been illuminated.

As Paul's letter to the Romans states (1:19-25), the evidence of God is all around us. But the revelation of who God is, not just the Creator but our Father, and the revelation of the Trinity, is not something you just stumble upon. If it was easy to discern that, Israel would have recognized Jesus for who he was. Sometimes, noticing the light is not enough: you must observe the light.

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