During our lives all of us experience some kind of temporary darkness. As infants, our parents likely pulled a blanket over our heads to protect us from the wind and cold. During winter blizzards in Minnesota, it is not uncommon for neighborhoods and rural homes to be plunged into darkness for a moment, for hours, or for days at a time. As drivers, we enter a highway tunnel and darkness surrounds us until our car lights turn on. As people who live with family and in community, we tiptoe in the darkness until the sun rises so that others can sleep.
It then should come as no surprise to us that images of darkness and light appear again and again throughout the scriptures as well as our religious tradition. The first thing that we read in the Jewish scriptures is that, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland and darkness covered the abyss. . . ” (Gen. 1:1-2). The very first action of God was to say, “‘Let there be light’; and there was light and God saw how good the light was” (Gen. 1:3-4).
In our Christian tradition we follow ancient Jewish religious practices. Lit candles and burning oil lamps are used to show that God is with us. The early Jews called God’s presence the “Shekinah”. This word means where God is dwelling, settling or where God’s divine presence is manifested. This glory is seen when God’s glory filled the temple and even in the wilderness where God was a light during the night and the Shekinah cloud of his glory shaded Israel in the scorching sun of the desert. God’s presence was manifested by the intense light that filled the tabernacle, the temple in Jerusalem and even in the Transfiguration where Jesus shone brighter than the sun when he spoke with Moses and with Elijah as Peter, James and John looked on.
There is a Jewish story that the pagan Emperor Hadrian said to Rabbi Joshua, “I desire greatly to see your God.” Rabbi Joshua asked him to stand facing the brilliant summer sun, and said, “Gaze upon it.” The emperor said, “I cannot, it is too bright.” “Then,” said Rabbi Joshua, “If you are not able to look upon the sun, a servant of God, how much less may you gaze upon the Shekinah?”
The gospel according to John uses the metaphor of light to describe both God the Father as light and Jesus the son of God as light to teach the Johannine community that they themselves should shine as light on hilltops and not hide their faith in God temporarily under bushel baskets out of fear. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus, who comes to him in the dark of night, that whoever lives the truth lives in light.
We know that there can be no life without light. In Jesus we all are given a brilliant light a new life, a distinctive way of experiencing the world. It is like the disciples at Emmaus when they saw Jesus in the scriptures and the breaking of the bread. We perceive our world and give meaning to the world through the new light of faith in Jesus Christ. I believe it can best be described using a story.
“The cave heard a voice calling to it: ‘Come up into the light… come and see the sunshine.’ The cave replied: ‘I don’t know what you mean; there isn’t anything here but darkness.’ Finally the cave ventured forth and was surprised to see light all around. Looking up to the sun, the cave said: ‘Come with me and see my darkness.’ The sun agreed and entered the cave….’Now show me your darkness!’ But there was no darkness.”
Today’s gospel calls us to go into the light and to invite new life to come into our world. “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
Fr. Bob Kelly
Photo of moon by Richard Schletty