St. Francis & the Light of Life

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October 8, 2015 by jmw

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,  when the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters… God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good…”

Why light? Why did the authors of this great creation poem decide that light was God’s very first creation? Do you ever think about that? For some this question is at the heart of a debate about whether the Bible can be trusted as a literal description of how the world came to be. The question is how light could be God’s first creation when the sun, moon and stars were not created until the fourth day. Some go to great lengths to debate this and make sense of it within the paradigm of modern science. This is neither my interest nor intent. Instead, I wonder if this seemingly incongruent order of creation is a clue that what we are reading is not a science textbook but a kind of poetry that is intended to teach us something about God, our world, and our place in it.

So, why light? It’s kind of difficult to imagine the creation of light because light is not really a “thing” so much as the means by which we see all things. When we think of the presence of light we automatically imagine the world that is illuminated by the light. When someone flicks on the switch and says, “Let there be light,” they are not only commanding the light, they are anticipating everything that the light brings into being.

Could it be that the foremost of God’s creative acts was to provide for us not just a part of creation but a way to see all of creation? To ponder this we walk the blurred line between literal and metaphorical: light is indeed the literal means by which we see the created world; it is also symbolic of how we see the created world, that is, in terms of meaning and purpose.

Light is not indifferent. And I think we all know this, at least at a subconscious level. Light is not simply a utilitarian tool; it is also an aesthetic influence on our relationship to the created world. That’s why we now have like a dozen lighting settings on our phone camera. We like to play with light and tamper with the way we see the world.

Some of you will remember back in June when there was a three-day circus called a film crew puttering around the premises. Three days and tens of thousands of dollars for like 15 minutes of television. I’ll never understand. But that’s not my point. The reason I bring it up is that the film crew was obsessed with lighting. They had a man outside on his walkie-talkie telling the crew inside when the sun was about to be covered by clouds. They brought in all kinds of artificial lights and covered windows and built crazy scaffolding right in here to get the light that they wanted. Before the action, before the camera, must come the lights. For those of you who were around you remember how insane it all was.

But it’s interesting because it reminds us how light influences the way we see the world. And that’s really what I’ve been pondering between these two texts from the opening chapters of Genesis and the gospel of John.

In Genesis we read that God’s first creative act was to create this mystery called light, which literally provides the way we see the whole of creation.

But in John we read something even more poetic and more astonishing. In John we read that the same God of Genesis who in the beginning created all things did this through the Word, and that Word is the light of life, and that light of life came into the world and took on flesh and was full of grace and truth.

Here we find ourselves at the center of what some have called the ‘scandal of particularity.’ The scandal is that, following these words from John, the Christian faith professes that the light by which we are meant to see the created world is Jesus.

Now, let me say something briefly about this because this idea that Jesus is the light [or the way, the truth, the life, the word, etc.] by which we are meant to see can get us into trouble if we think that by professing this we therefore comprehend it.

Think for a moment about the way that light works:

Light is mysterious. We cannot see it all: Light exists on a spectrum and what we humans see is only a small portion of that spectrum that we call visible light. There is more light illuminating our created world, some animals can see it, and some of it is purely energy. We must remember that though Jesus be our light, there’s so much that he illuminates that we cannot see; and, maybe, animals have something to teach us about Jesus as the light of creation?

Light is untameable – light behaves in mysterious ways, sometimes particles, sometimes waves. What physicists have discovered is that light cannot be tamed.

Have you ever walked by a store window and noticed your own reflection? And yet, at the same time you can see some of what is inside the store? This is because some of the photons from the light are traveling through the glass and others are bouncing off to be absorbed by you. I think this is a helpful way of thinking about how Jesus illuminates both the world and the self. Christ is the light by which we come to see ourselves and the creation, though we do not see perfectly; we see through a glass darkly, and we must be humble. Nonetheless, we are afforded enough of a view of ourselves and creation to live humbly and faithfully on our earthly home.

Whether or not we can all agree that Jesus is the light by which we ought to see creation is one thing. But we must agree that all of our actions in this world rest upon assumptions about what creation is and how we belong to it. What would it look like for us to live out of the assumptions provided in John’s gospel, namely, that the way to see creation is through the light of Christ?

Allow me to suggest two ways.

First, Jesus illuminates our relationship to creation through his teaching and example. From sharing food to trusting the benevolence of the Creator, Jesus teaches us that God’s will is to be done here on earth. Although Jesus did not explicitly preach a “save mother earth” theology he consistently operated with the assumption that creation is at the service of God’s kingdom, which means that humankind is not god; we are creatures. I feel like just getting this straightened out would be a giant step forward in our climate crisis!

In his recent encyclical on the climate Pope Francis said, “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.”

When we pray, “Our Father…” we are confessing something about God and creation that should change the way we see our relationship with the whole of creation.

The second way that Jesus illuminates our view of creation is by the beautiful and scandalous mystery we call the incarnation. What Jesus reveals to us about God and creation is that they are not, in fact, separate but intimately bound up together in a mysterious relationship of love.

Quoting the Bartholomew, the current Archbishop of Constantinople of the Orthodox Church, Pope Francis writes, “As Christians, we are also called ‘to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet’.”

This is what the incarnation is all about. It is not about a one time event way back in the first century when God went on a secret mission and became incarnate for thirty years and then went back to wherever it is God came from. The incarnation is the incredible revelation that God is Emmanuel, God with us, God in the flesh, in creation, here and now. Because the incarnation is at the heart of our faith, we can say that Christianity does not have a creation theology or an eco-theology, it is creation theology. And we must remember this.

Woodcut on paper, A/P. Collection of St. Scholastica Monastery.

Woodcut on paper, A/P. Collection of St. Scholastica Monastery.

Perhaps no individual in Christian history has viewed the whole of creation by the light of Jesus like St. Francis of Assisi. As Pope Francis said, he is the “example par excellence… of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. … He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. … He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.

His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, …[St. Francis] would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’” Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.”

Toward the end of his life St. Francis was described by his followers as a light, which is a fitting description for him. Not because he spent so many years in the dark shadows of his society caring for the poor – though that certainly matters. Not because his preaching and teaching was so profoundly enlightening – though that too certainly matters. But because everything that St. Francis did was an expression of his love for God in creation, which, you might say is what it means to see the world through light of Christ, the Word of God that never stops speaking the words “I love you” to the good creation.

“Let there be light.” Let there be the light of life. And may we who confess Christ as the light of the world live as though creation is the seamless garment where the divine and human meet.  Amen.


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