“Light from light”. Fr Isaac, a good friend and the Provost of this Cathedral, has asked me to reflect on these words. I am grateful for this and honoured to be here.
“Light from light”. The phrase comes, as we know, from the Nicene, that Creed which was elaborated at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and further enriched at that of Constantinople in 381. It’s the Creed familiar to us from our respective liturgies and recognised as normative by all the major Christian confessions.
Let me begin, prosaically but I hope helpfully, by putting the phrase in context.
Creeds, as we know, have a tri-partite structure. They are hymns with three verses, or a story in three chapters, a testimony in three paragraphs. They are doxology, narrative and law, all at once. And their shape is Trinitarian. The first part speaks of God the Father and the action of creation, the second of the Lord Jesus Christ and his redeeming acts, the third of the Holy Spirit and the gifts by which we are sanctified.
So, in the form used in the Roman Liturgy, we say, ‘I believe in one God, the Father almighty etc…I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only begotten Son of God etc…I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.’ You might say here, Ah, wait a moment: we also say, a little later, ‘I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.’ Indeed. So is the Creed therefore four-fold? If we take the Latin text, we will note a subtle distinction. Each of the three members of the Creed begins with (credo) in + accusative. The phrase, ‘one holy, catholic and apostolic Church’, however, lacks the preposition ‘in’. In Latin ‘in’ followed by the accusative denotes ‘motion towards’. And this construction in the Creed is restricted to the 3 divine persons. In English it is almost impossible to catch this. But there is a parallel. In the great commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the Greek says ‘baptising them’ not merely ‘in’, but ‘into’ the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. At baptism, we are immersed into the being of the Holy Trinity. And when at the Eucharist we proclaim the Nicene Creed, we are saying we believe into the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Our whole being is in dynamic movement towards the Three, is casting itself upon them, is entering, re-entering, into relationship with them. To recite the Creed is to renew a covenant. There is motion towards. Just as the Creed tells of the motion towards us of the Father in creation, the Son in redemption and the Holy Spirit in sanctification, so the Creed carries us in faith towards Them. You may recall that one ancient word for Creeds is ‘symbol’, which means ‘throwing together’. In a certain sense, the Creed throws us and the Trinity together. It was the custom in the ancient world for the two parties to a contract each to keep one jagged half of the document. If later confirmation was needed, they could be brought together to see if they fitted. This is what happens by means of the Creed, by means of faith: God and man come together, enter into covenant, communion.
Light from Light
‘Light from light’ is itself a dynamic phrase. It belongs to stanza, chapter, paragraph Two. It is part of the Christology of the Creed. It is part, more specifically, of the sonorous preface to the Incarnation that is perhaps the most arresting part of this Creed. These are the full, resounding chords with which the Council of Nicaea sounded down the misleading melodies of Arius. The Creed delivers hammer-blow after hammer-blow. It’s like someone driving a stake into the ground. The one Lord Jesus Christ is ‘the only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.’ This is the one who for us human beings and for our salvation came down from heave, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit and became man. Not a ‘second god’, not a god with a small ‘g’, not a god in an analogous sense, not a created god, not a demi-urge, not someone who came into being at some point, not really just a bigger and better version of ourselves, not the newly-appointed CEO of the universe – I’m paraphrasing Arius – but, to use a later phrase, ‘One of the Trinity’, one who in his origin, identity and essence belongs resolutely to the sphere of the Uncreated. He is unambiguously divine. And so, when he becomes man, he can make an infinite difference. For us, that’s the point. He’s not a Socrates or Buddha or Zoroaster or Muhammed. He is the Second Person of the Trinity.
He is God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.
I like this quotation from the French poet, Paul Claudel: “The Trinity is not something lifeless or passive; it is something which lives, breathes, and acts. Even in God there is a respiration; we worship a living God who acts, who breathes, who exhales His very Self. Philosophy has too long accustomed us to the idea of an abstract God: impassive and indifferent. The Bible gives us a very different picture of Him. It shows us a living Being loving, angry, merciful, passionate, someone in whom we are delighted to find our own resemblance, and who is not so much the negation of all that is in us, His children, as its transcendent perfection.”
Between these clear but somewhat abstract phrases ‘God from God’, ‘true God from true God’, our ‘Light from Light’ does leap out, shine out. It’s visual, concrete, vivid. And why on earth is it there? Or, better, what does it convey? What life-giving truth shines out here?
I’d suggest three things.
An immediate Meaning
The first is the immediate one. In a context of theological war, or polemic, the phrase has a precise doctrinal message to give. The orthodox Fathers, with the redoubtable Athanasius at their head, believed that in light they had a very telling image and symbol of the inner life of God, and precisely of the simultaneous distinction and unity of Father and Son. Here was an image with which to zap the Arians. Their physics are not ours, but that’s by the bye. The sun shines. You cannot have the sun without it shining (even if beyond the clouds). And conversely, you cannot have shining without the sun. The two are inseparable and simultaneous. Yet we also distinguish, in some way, the sun and its shining; the first gives off the second, the second comes from the first. If we then transpose this cosmic image to its divine archetype, if we go from nature to the Author of nature, we can speak, on the one hand, of a consubstantiality, a co-eternity, an inseparability / unity of nature or being, and, on the other, a source and what proceeds from the source, a distinction of identities, of persons. In the world of nature, enveloping us from dawn to dusk, we have both a commonality of light and yet a distinction of relationship: the sun originates the shining and the shining is originated. In the world of the divine, as it were, which holds us in being, we have a Father and Son, a Begetter and Begotten, distinct as persons but one in nature.
St Athanasius also said, ‘we have two eyes but a single vision.’
Around all this is a first reason for this startling phrase, ‘Light from Light’. It really spoke to the orthodox. One could bring on stage here many quotes from Athanasius and his friends. One could indeed do a doctorate on the use of the imagery of light in the Arian controversy. There it is, between ‘God from God’ and ‘true God from true God.’ It brings light, in every sense, to those phrases.
A wider Meaning
But there’s something broader too. It’s not just an aspect of the link between a light and its shining that is in play here, but the whole symbolism of light itself.
‘I will now call to mind the works of the Lord, says the Book of Sirach, and will declare what I have seen. By the words of the Lord his works are done. The sun looks down on everything with its light, and the work of the Lord is full of his glory’ (42:15-16) Note the sun and its light. And how, some verses later, when the author begins his eulogy of creation, it is with the sun he starts (43:2ff). Of course, we think back to Genesis which begins, not with the sun precisely, but with light. And so it is. In those parallel universes of Nature, Bible and Liturgy, those three books through which God speaks to us, light is primal and paramount. ‘And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light.’ And the last image Jesus gives himself in the book of Revelation is, ‘I am the bright morning star’ (22:16).
We are born into the light of day and at the end
‘unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square.’ Our eyes close on the light.
Perhaps, at least for northerners, it is around the Mediterranean – in Sicily, Greece, the Levant – that the power and glory of light are at their maximum. The link between light and life, between light and delight, is tangible. Lumen, phos: these are evocative words. One can see the dawn rising when one says them. It’s somehow not by chance that it was in this Greco-Roman world that our phrase saw the light of day.
‘For a Greek, light is the most excellent of all realities; the attributes given it are suggestive: holy, pure, sweet, joyous, most beloved, heavenly or divine’ (Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, III, p. 473). How can a human heart that has not been irremediably hardened not think of light, as God’s gift, yes, but as more too, as expression and epiphany of his very being? As a created physical transcription of his inner glory, his doxa? Isn’t light, like biblical wisdom, ‘a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty…a reflection of eternal light…and an image of his goodness’ (Wis 7:25, 26)? And where else can deity dwell than ‘in unapproachable light’ (1 Tim 6:16). Before St John says, ‘God is love’, he has first said: ‘This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all’ (1 Jn 1:5).
Even in our less illumined north, the lesser and the Greater light evoke one another:
“О Greater Light, we praise Thee for the less;
The eastern light our spires touch at morning,
The light that slants upon our western doors at evening.
The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight,
Moon light and star light, owl and moth light,
Glow—worm glowlight on a grassblade.
О Light Invisible, we worship Thee!” (T. S. Eliot, The Rock).
‘Light from light’, how could it not be applied to the Son who proceeds from the Father of lights? And so, today, Simeon identifies the child he takes into his arms as ‘the light to enlighten the nations’ (Lk 2:32). ‘It is his understanding that the son of Mary brings truth, goodness, happiness. Since he comes as illuminator, he will publish, manifest, make known God and God’s will’ (Spicq, op. cit. p. 478). At the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1, ‘The people who were sitting in darkness have seen a great light, and on those who were sitting in the region of the shadow of death, a light has risen.’ This light is a person. It is Jesus. It is ‘God with us.’ And so, in the Gospel of John, both the narrator and the subject are as explicit as Simeon, more so even. ‘In him was life, and that life was the light of men…the light shone in the darkness but the darkness did not comprehend it…the true light, which enlightens every human being, was coming into the world.’ At the Feast of Tabernacles, when four golden lamps were lit which the rabbis said lit up all Jerusalem, Jesus proclaims, ‘I am the light of the world; the one who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ Before healing the man born blind, he declares, ‘While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ Indeed, in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ whole public ministry is summed up as an offer of light to those perilously inclined to prefer the darkness (their own limited understanding and evil deeds): ‘The Light is with you a little longer. Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you.’ Criminals prefer to operate at night, and fallen human beings can even ‘hate the light’. Indeed, in the Passion Narratives, Judas goes out, ‘and it was night’, and the Light of the world is shrouded in the darkness of the tomb. In the New Testament use of the imagery of light – for God, for Christ and for the disciples- all the cosmic and biblical meanings, implications, allusions of light converge, find their ultimate location. One could say transfiguration. The metaphor turns into a reality. This light from light is and brings truth, understanding, judgment, life, joy. ‘Christianity may be defined as a religion of light’ (Spicq, op. cit., p. 478). And it is thanks to Christ that this is so. He is the true Light, Light from Light. He gathers up into himself the whole meaning and potential of light. He’s the reality that brings the symbolism to completion. It was all there for the sake of illuminating him, the Son of the Father.
He is indeed the light who was to come into the world and before whom the light of the sun and the moon and the stars, and every luminous prophet, bow down in adoration.
A third Meaning
But there is a third message too. It’s about us directly. What is said of the Son in relation to his Father can be said of us in relation to the Son. ‘Light from light’ describes the Christian. ‘You are the light of the world,’ Jesus tell his disciples. Christians are ‘sons of light’. They will feel the press of darkness, from the world, the flesh and the devil, but ‘in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation’, they are to shine ‘as lights in the world.’ They are called to rekindle the lights of faith, hope and charity every time they are extinguished. They are to light their candle again and again from the Paschal Candle the Light of Christ. For our Saviour Christ Jesus has ‘abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.’ And this Gospel has been entrusted to us and we have been enlightened by baptism. We are light from Light.
Let me end with a quotation from Pope Francis’ first Encyclical, called precisely Lumen Fidei and with a prayer of Bl. John Henry Newman, very apt after Holy Communion.
“The light of Faith: this is how the Church’s tradition speaks of the great gift brought by Jesus. In John’s Gospel, Christ says of himself: “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (Jn 12:46). Saint Paul uses the same image: “God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts” (2 Cor 4:6). The pagan world, which hungered for light, had seen the growth of the cult of the sun god, Sol Invictus, invoked each day at sunrise. Yet though the sun was born anew each morning, it was clearly incapable of casting its light on all of human existence. The sun does not illumine all reality; its rays cannot penetrate to the shadow of death, the place where men’s eyes are closed to its light. “No one — Saint Justin Martyr writes — has ever been ready to die for his faith in the sun”. Conscious of the immense horizon which their faith opened before them, Christians invoked Jesus as the true sun “whose rays bestow life”. To Martha, weeping for the death of her brother Lazarus, Jesus said: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (Jn 11:40). Those who believe, see; they see with a light that illumines their entire journey, for it comes from the risen Christ, the morning star which never sets” (Pope Francis, Encyclical Lumen Fidei,1).
Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go.
Flood my soul with Your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly,
That my life may only be a radiance of Yours.
Shine through me, and be so in me
That every soul I come in contact with
May feel Your presence in my soul.
Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus!
Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as You shine,
So to shine as to be a light to others;
The light, O Jesus will be all from You; none of it will be mine;
It will be you, shining on others through me.
(Prayer of John Henry Newman)