Light Unshared Is Darkness

By Annette Brownlee

I want to begin this homily with a definition, strange as that may be — as a lens through which to look at our gospel reading on this last Sunday before we enter the season of Lent. It’s a definition of light by George McDonald, a 19th-century Christian: “Light unshared is darkness. To be light indeed, it must shine out. It is of the very essence of light that it is for others. The thing is true of the spiritual as of the physical light.”

“Light unshared is darkness. To be light indeed, it must shine out. It is of the very essence of light that it is for others.”

Three of the 12 disciples who follow Jesus receive a great gift, something all of us who follow Jesus probably hope for, but few are given: they get to see Christ’s full beauty, which words can barely describe. His full beauty is displayed in dazzling light, not in the exquisite unfolding of a flower, or the swell of the sea. In light, which is a part of the created order, so human senses can apprehend it, but also, it seems beyond it. Matthew writes, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white.”

One poet (Shelly) wrote that Jesus is “the Light whose smile kindles the Universe, That Beauty in which all things work and move.” He is the light that broke on the first morning. John’s gospel describes him in a similar way. “What has come into being in him was life, and that life was the light of all people.” The presence of Moses and Elijah, the voice of God that speaks on the mountain, as it spoke at Christ’s baptism, tells us that Jesus in all his beauty is the One testified by Moses and the prophets. He is the Son of the God of Israel, present at creation. Of whom his Father says, “I am well pleased, listen to him.”

Only three disciples, Peter, James, and John, get to see this vision of Jesus’ beauty, terrified as they are. The other nine disciples and the crowds who follow Jesus are below. Not on the mountaintop, but going about their day, like us. In fact, they are talking to the father of a boy who has epilepsy, and failing miserably to heal him. They don’t get to see this display of Christ’s beauty and hear God’s voice. Instead, they must face their own weak faith, the suffering of a child’s broken body, a parent’s anguish, their failure to heal this boy in Jesus’ name, their powerlessness to help.

I suspect we long to be like Peter, James, and John, to find God in mountaintop experiences, in deep revelations of him, removed from the routines and failures of our days and the complexities of the world. But Christ as the world’s true light must shine out; such is the definition of light, and it’s the reason God sent him. It is the essence of light and the nature of God. To be light indeed, it must shine out. It is of the very essence of light that it is for others.”

As John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and that life was the light of all people.” So to shine only for the select few on top of a high mountain is not Christ’s nature. For his beauty to be seen only in some places and not others is not who Jesus is. He shines also for those at the bottom of the mountain: the boy with epilepsy, his frightened father, the nine disciples whose faith is too weak to heal him, who can only see their failure.

It is hard, of course, to see evidence of Jesus in such places. And it seems that our world is getting darker and more people, not fewer, are afraid for their families and future. Here is our vocation as Christians. A part of what it means to place our trust in Christ is to know — and claim and trust — what we cannot always see. We know the truth of what we often cannot see.

Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot and will not overcome it. It is the nature of light to shine out. Even in the dark. We know this, we have received this truth passed down to us from Moses and the prophets, the apostles and generation by generation to us. We hold onto it by faith, even when we can’t see it. We remind others of it and, most importantly, we live it. We take this promise into the dark places our lives, of the lives we bind ourselves to, and we act on its truth. Christ is present, healing, leading, redeeming, though we cannot see it nor set its timetable. Such is our calling as Christians.

When the three disciples on the mountaintop were caught up in the clouds, blinded by the dazzling light of Jesus’ full beauty, and heard God speak to them, Matthew writes they were terrified. Matthew uses only one other place in all his gospel. Only one? Do you know where? This time, instead of climbing up a high mountain, Christ climbs up on a tree. Instead of a private epiphany of light there is a public spectacle of humiliation. Instead of his garments made radiant, his garments are stripped from him. Instead of Moses and Elijah on either side of him, there are two robbers.

And when here on the mountaintop the heavens opened and God’s voice proclaims his beloved Son, on the cross heaven is closed and it’s Christ’s voice we hear, crying out, “Why have you abandoned me?” But here too, as on the mountain filled with light and beauty, here too, at Golgotha filled with darkness and pain, here too Matthew tells us that the disciples “were exceedingly afraid.”

Because they had seen the same beauty. The same beauty. We don’t know if they recognized their fear for what it was, but they were exceedingly afraid because they were in the presence of another transfiguration, overwhelming beauty, this time clothed not in light and glory, but in darkness and humiliation.

But it is still — and more so — the beauty in which the universe lives and moves — because it is love laying down its life for another. It is Christ laying down his life for the world. The light whose smile kindles the universe, laying it down for a season for that same universe. This is utter beauty, complete light. This is what it looks light for Christ to shine in the darkness. This is the light we are joined to as we live our vocation as Christians in this increasingly dark world. This is what we know as Christians, what has been passed down to us.

There will be resurrection, another shining body. There will be a final day, a time when all eyes will see this truth. Until then, our vocation as Christians, as the Church that is the body of Jesus, the world’s light and life, stands before us. Christ has given us a roadmap for that vocation in the rough terrain of this year, and a promise.

Very few routes on that roadmap lead to mountaintop experiences Very few, actually. But all lead to beauty, especially those that cut across the most sorrow-filled and dark corners of our lives. And God has given us the key to using this map: listen to him. Listen to him, my Son, my Son in all his beauty and humiliation. Listen to him.

We know where to seek God’s beauty and light: Whenever love lays down its life for another. Whenever we receive another’s self-giving. When we, as we follow Christ, give ourselves for another. “Light unshared is darkness. To be light indeed, it must shine out. It is of the very essence of light that it is for others.”

The Rev. Dr. Annette Brownlee is chaplain, professor of pastoral theology, and director of field education at Wycliffe College, Toronto.

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