As a rather observant child, I made a mental note of the fact that my maternal grandmother would ask me to “make a light” instead of asking me to switch it on. When she was a child, no one switched lights on. At night, light was not had without effort, not in her English town nor in most places yet. She was born on the day that Gladstone introduced his Irish Home Rule bill in the House of Commons, the same Gladstone who gave a lamp to Newman who had “never sinned against the Light,” a lamp that still can be seen on his desk in Birmingham, and it certainly was not electric. Four years after my grandmother’s birth, Florence Nightingale recorded her voice on a wax cylinder patented by the Edison Company. My grandmother harbored a devotion to the “Lady with a Lamp” for her town’s regiment had fought in the Crimean War and some of them remembered the Lady visiting at night the wards in the Selimye Barracks of Scutari and it most definitely was not an electric lamp: that was the year Thomas Edison was born.
While eclectic in theology, and something of a Universalist, Florence Nightingale moved from Unitarianism to Anglicanism, and soon came to admire the slum work of the future Cardinal Manning who provided her with ten Catholic nuns to help nurse the soldiers in the war. They, along with fourteen Anglican nuns, nurtured the English custom of calling all nurses, mostly secular but usually veiled, “Sister.” A lamp, not electric, became the symbol of nursing organizations even in the United States. Then there was the friend of my grandmother, a very old lady, Granny Pye as I called her, who had been born in Scotland in the year that the missionary David Livingston died in Zambia. Although she belonged to the Old Kirk that did not allow ritual candles, she had a ritual of her own, for she read from the family Bible every night by candlelight, as though light bulbs were somewhat profane.
My point is that artificial light is so available now, at the flip of a switch, that we are losing a sense of wonder at the gift of light. The first creature was light itself “Let there be light….” It is hard to describe light without referring to its opposite. “The people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). The first thing one learns in painting, after tackling perspective, is that colors seem bright only by contrast, and that principle of chiaroscuro was known well before the likes of Caravaggio and de la Tour. You don’t have to spend a winter in Lapland to know that: just spend a few dim days in February, or try selling an apartment without a view.
Light and life go together and there are countless “last words” that have to do with light as life ends. As he was dying, Goethe cried out, “Mehr Licht!—More light!” but in his case it probably had no spiritual meaning. He had also been a scientist who considered that his best book was “The Theory of Colors.” He most likely was just asking that the shutters be opened. To give him his due, anyone who has read his Faust, knows that he also knew of moral darkness and what happens in chambers of the mind that choose darkness over light. In retrospect, it is poignant, though not of any religious significance, that Theodore Roosevelt said as he went to bed for the last time: “Put out the light.” He was thinking of electricity and not mortality. That good man just wanted a good sleep, but he did not know how good it would be. Very different and far from prosaic, was what young O. Henry, abandoned by his wife Sara, said with his last alcoholic breath in the dim gaslight of his rented room: “Turn up the lights—I don’t want to go home in the dark.” However oblique his spiritual intuition may have been, it seems laden with an ancient appeal to One “in whom is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
Our Lord’s utterances stunned, enthralled and shocked the crowds, but none was more startling than this: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). As the light itself, his human decibels shouted to the sky that his essence is not a creature, but the divinity who creates physical light with the agency of “the Father of lights, with whom there is no change, nor shadow of alteration” (James 1:17), and with their Spirit who will “enlighten the hearts of the faithful” with the fire of love. Frail human voices have the inestimable privilege of professing that mystery each Sunday in the Creed: Jesus of Nazareth is “Light from Light” from beyond Nazareth.
God offers the human race the light of life in order that it might “shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). Morally, the exercise of the free will can make that light beautiful or garish. On his visit to the United States which gave the world so many congenial quotes, G.K, Chesterton was entranced by the billboard lights in Times Square advertising soaps and cigarettes and hair tonic. He remarked, “What a garden of delights this would be if only one could not read.”
Our Lord dignifies the human race by enabling his own light to shine through his human creatures so that it might give “light to all the house” (Matt. 5:15). That house includes everyone’s own neighborhood, with its astonishing challenges and potential. In my own instance, that neighborhood, which is my parish, consists right now in the largest real estate development in the nation, besides some venerable older fixtures including the Empire State Building. It becomes a nightly light show of colors that would have got another book out of Goethe. The saints are an even more wonderful light show themselves. They are the “generation that seeks him…” (Psalm 24:6). To risk the rhetorical indecency of a pun, the generator that lights this generation up is not in Manhattan, for it is in the City that “has no need of the sun, nor of the moon, to shine in it. For the glory of God has enlightened it, and the Lamb is the lamp thereof” (Rev. 21:23).