Light and the Incarnation

By H. Boone Porter

It is as the manifestation of the glorious light of God our Creator that St. Paul spoke of the Incarnation of our Blessed Savior. Some other writers of the New Testament expressed similar thoughts. But how do the writers of the four gospels relate the Lord’s coming among us to the doctrine of creation, the First Article of our Christian faith? We may approach this by also considering their use of the symbolism of light and the related theme of darkness as the space within which light manifests itself. 

St. Matthew, immediately after speaking of our Lord’s birth, proceeds to tell of the magi, the wise men from the East. It is a star — certainly seen in the darkness of night — which finally brings them to Bethlehem. This, of course, is uppermost in our thoughts on Epiphany. St. Mark does not provide any information about our Lord’s birth or childhood but, as we shall see next week, Mark has his own way of relating the beginning of the gospel to the story of creation. St. Luke has the most familiar account of our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem. Around this, in turn, has crystallized the popular imagery of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in the barn surrounded by animals, an attractive pictorial way of suggesting the cosmological implications of the Incarnation.

But returning to the theme of light, Luke develops it in connection with his poetry. In the Benedictus or Song of Zechariah (St. Luke 1:68-79), the forgiveness of sins to be announced by John the Baptist is 

Because of the tender mercy of our God

Whereby the sunrise (or dawn) from on high will visit us

To shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death… (verses 78 and 79)

This comparison of the coming of redemption to the rising of the sun suggested long ago the use fo this canticle in the morning devotions of the Church, where we continue to recite it. The song of the angels, Glory to God in the highest (St. Luke 2:14), is introduced in the previous verses by the appearance of the angels and the shining of God’s glory in the night. Then there is the Nunc dimittis or Song of Simeon (St. Luke 2:29-32), in which salvation, embodied in the child Jesus, is called

A light for the enlightenment of the Gentiles

And the glory of thy people Israel. 

These poems or canticles, together with the Magnificat, or Song of Mary also given in Luke’s gospel, have of course had a far-reaching influence on the development of Christian worship, especially in the daily morning and evening prayers of the Church. 

It is in the fourth gospel, St. John’s, that this theme of light comes back into explicit relation with the doctrine of creation. When John wrote his gospel, he began in a solemn manner, reminiscent of the opening of Genesis: “In the beginning was the word …” As God had begun creation by making light, so now it is announced, “In him was light, and the light was the life of men …” There are no shepherds or wise men in John’s prologue, but in his own manner he tells us what the incarnation means. Jesus Christ embodies the intellectual light, the truth, the meaning, and the divine purpose on the basis of which all that exists has been constituted. It is on this same basis that our rationality as human beings is possible (“ the light of men”). But “light” suggests more than rationality. It is the faith, it is love, it is the goodness of God which illumine the heart and which make us truly human. It is this light, which is in Jesus Christ, that the Creator of the universe wills to share with you and me. 

Will you see this light? It is most likely to be consciously experienced, by you and me as by shepherds and wise men, in darkness, quietness, and solitude. Tonight perhaps? Will you leave the circle of lamplight and venture out, to stand alone beneath the winter sky, experiencing darkness for a few minutes? As the poet T.S. Eliot said, 

I said to my soul, be still, and let 

the dark come upon you,

Which shall be the darkness of 

God. (East Coker, III)

It is in our darkness, our inner as well as outer darkness, that we can receive some vision of the light of Christ, in whom we behold the glory of God the Father. 

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our January 1, 1978 edition,

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