Take a moment and make an inventory of every light you might use or benefit from in the course of a week: room lights, headlights, lamps, porch lights, street lights and even flashlights. And that’s not counting the light from televisions, computer monitors, tablets, smartphones and other devices.
Now imagine living in ancient Israel without electricity. In such a world, it was difficult, if not impossible, to take light for granted. Scripture is filled with references to light. “The Bible,” states the “Dictionary of Biblical Imagery” (InterVarsity Press, $50), “is enveloped by the imagery of light, both literally and figuratively.” The first reference is found at the very beginning, in the opening verses of Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness” (Gn 1:3-4). This reference to physical light also serves as a rich metaphor and description of God’s presence, life and love. The last chapter of the Bible states, “Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever” (Rv 22:5).
Between the first and last chapters of the Bible are numerous descriptions of light, such as the promise of “a great light” described by the prophet Isaiah. The realization of that promise is expressed in cosmic terms in the prologue to the Gospel of John, in describing the Word who became man and dwelt among us: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (Jn 1:5, 9).
Isaiah prophesied during a time of great darkness. About eight centuries prior to the time of Christ, the region of Galilee had been conquered by the violent Assyrians (cf. 2 Kgs 15:29). The Israelites were taken into exile, and that exile was the darkness and source of distress referred to by the prophet. But Isaiah also spoke of a light that would eventually come and illuminate “the people who sat in darkness,” dawning on those living in “the shadow of death.”
Jesus, having undergone the temptation in the desert and having rebuffed the devil (Mt 4:1-11), went to Galilee, in the northernmost part of Palestine, above Judea and Samaria. He then settled in Capernaum, in the “region of Zebulun and Naphtali”; it became the base for his public ministry. Jesus then took up the message of the last prophet, St. John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (see Mt 3:2). But while John proclaimed the message, Jesus was the message, in the flesh and in the fullness of grace.
The great light, wrote St. Cyril of Jerusalem, “is Christ our Lord and the brightness of the Gospel preaching. It is not, in fact, the law, which was likened to a lamp.” A lamp, explained Cyril, always burned in the tabernacle, “on account of the shortness of the law’s rays,” which could only reach those within “the confines of the Jewish territories.” The Gentiles, then, were in darkness — until the One who fulfilled the Law perfectly (cf Mt 5:17-18) came and proclaimed the kingdom to the world.
And how would the Gospel be proclaimed? Through the Apostles, chosen by Christ, and through the Church, established by Christ. As he explained in the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid” (Mt 5:14). Don’t hide the gift!
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.