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Light in the darkness

March 12, 2010

Car lights brighten the night

 

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:5

I think it was William Barclay who wrote that not even all the darkness in the world can extinguish the light of a single flame. I first read those words when I was in my early twenties and going through a difficult time. They helped me to believe that my efforts at an ethical and ‘holy’ life mattered, even if the rest of the world didn’t care or even if my efforts seemed to me, in moments of self-doubt, so pitiful and pathetic.

In John’s Gospel ‘Night’ or the ‘Darkness’ is usually associated with the decay and destruction of sin or evil. The gospel is full of stark poetic contrasts between light and dark – Jesus is the representative of the Light of God. Sadly, the ordinary people and Jewish leaders’  of that time in history often represent darkness and night in the narrative, because they refuse in the face of dynamic signs of divine power to believe that Jesus is ‘I Am’. That is not just a righteous and holy teacher, but an incarnation – the incarnation of the living God. God in the flesh. God’s Son.

I have always found John’s Gospel a text of great poetic beauty and drama. For me it excels in inspiring both awe and devotion towards the principle character, this fiery and enigmatic, young, Jewish man. Reading this story, I believe, has always been an act of faith and imagination. Perhaps, it is fair, as some skeptics have argued, to say that  we have so little to go on…so little empirical evidence to demonstrate, prove the historical reality of this Gospel story. It is difficult to suspend  our intimate knowledge of this world – the pressing and tangible existence of twenty-first century life to visualise and believe that the words of the writer of John are truthful and portray an accurate testimony of historic events. It is common knowledge among even first year Bible students that  the scholars are undecided on ‘who’ actually wrote this text.  What was the author’s name and true identity? Was it one person, an eyewitness, who authored the text? Alternatively, was it a kind of ancient editorial team representing a specific religious community and therefore  presenting in the narrative and words of Jesus the partisan interests of their particular group?

In my mind I agree with the rationalists and empiricists (those who prefer to determine the nature of life by measuring physical evidence) that we have little concrete evidence from the past to demonstrate unequivocally that this text is a factual account of what happened during Jesus’ life. Why should anyone believe ‘ancient’ stories from approximately 1900 years ago?  Yes, in my mind I can’t help agree in a way. I feel it is important to recognise how very distant we are from those ancient times in that part of the Roman Empire at the far eastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea. So much has changed – our languages, our culture, our technologies, our fashions and preoccupations, our scientific understanding of human biology and the far reaches of the Universe (or multiverse). I guess it is a religious cliche, but can Jesus and the Bible still ‘speak today’?! I can’t speak for those who don’t believe or who consider themselves outside of the Christian Church, but I know that within the Christian faith many would argue affirmatively – that: ‘Yes, indeed the Bible does speak today! Yes, Jesus is still relevant to today’s problems and life!’

I guess I need to ‘nail my colours to the mast’, as they might say and agree with this statement too. I do believe that this person – Jesus of Nazareth – and this text continue to speak to people in the bright, new, increasingly interconnected globalised societies. But I wonder if the poetry of John’s gospel might whisper to us for a glancing attention, rather than scream and dominate our view. Thinking seriously about the transformation of the world we live in since the first century Palestine and the Mediterranean peoples, perhaps we should be more conscious of how difficult it is to make authoritive and dogmatic ethical decisions from a piece of literature written in such a different context. I wonder if the imagery of Light and Dark is still relevant, but rather than being a ‘battle’ between good and evil, it is a dance between knowledge and ignorance, insight and delusion, faith in the Glory and Wonder of life…both religious and secular…in contrast to an atitude of selfish preoccupation. We need the Light . Yes, in the vapourous forms of  ancient religious writing, ritual, imagination and prayer, but also through the shining  fields of  the sciences, medicine; psychology and social, humanistic sciences; philosophy and art…and of course, of interest to both a secular and religious society…people… community. We need eachother. We require the light of human warmth and honest criticism as well. We cannot live an isolated existence using texts or idealogies, be they sacred or secular to rarefy our lifes so that they are uncontaminated by the ideas and persons of the ‘other side’ – the Dark side.

In a sense, I am saying that there is grey and not just black and white. In truth, there is a spectrum of light and dark… with some of the most wonderful discoveries being the vibrant colours in-between the extremes!

For me both night and light are beautiful. Can I imagine a world of permanent brilliance or perpetual night? Yes, and I think both would be hell. We need the illumination to brighten are hearts and minds through the windows of our eyes and the pours of our skin. We need the nocturnal dark to rest.  Our souls require rest from the brightness of day to develop our other senses when when we cannot ‘see’ and therefore must walk in faith. The disappearance of the sun also allows us to percieve the light once again in its true radiance  as figure against the ground of a black canvas of emptiness (or is it black fullness?)

Here is a picture I took a few hours ago from a motorway bridge at about 11pm. I’ve been wanting to capture this scene for several years. Its taken me so long to getting round to actually taking a few photos! But although I’m not a professional photographer and the photo may be amateurish – I still love this scene. Car lights!! Something as unspiritual and unreligious as that…create a scene of transcendent beauty. Some people look at the world in its goodness and say God is an artist. But lets not forget so are women and men. Even humanity’s utilitarian inventions are capable of shedding beauty in the world.

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