All we have to do is shut our eyes in order to realise that it is difficult to overstate the importance of light. It is the first thing God creates (Genesis 1), because without it, how could anything else happen, or be seen to happen? As it says in Psalm 36/37, ‘In your light, we see light’. God creates light first of all things, and then later the sun and the moon, because that is how he creates time for us to occupy.
Jesus the Light of the world
Christian imagery is full of light. Everybody knows ‘Shine, Jesus, shine’ even if it isn’t their favourite hymn, and there are lots of others (Walk in the light, Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, Morning has broken, Lead, kindly Light… and I haven’t even reached for a hymn book yet). Particularly in St John’s Gospel, Jesus is identified with light. He is the light of the world, the true light which enlightens everyone (John 1). When he speaks, he calls himself the light, repeatedly. It seems like an obvious image, especially to dwellers of the northern hemisphere, but in this, as so often, Jesus is actually being quite novel, and making a huge claim. The word light is not used so freely in the Old Testament. God is more often (in) a cloud, or a pillar of cloud, a fire or a fortress; he is a giver of shade (Ps. 120/121), sometimes protection from the sun, but mostly as a way of keeping someone in danger concealed from his enemies.
It is always worth spending time working out where the light in a painting is coming from, and in pictures of the Nativity it is often coming from the baby, to reinforce the image. These are topical as well as gorgeous, so I have scattered them through my text.
In Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, the adult Jesus is holding a lantern, but the light is also coming from the halo around his head. In the account of the Transfiguration, Jesus is too bright to look at, his clothes more dazzling than any laundry could make them (Mark 9). He has become a being of pure light, but when God speaks a few minutes later, he speaks from a cloud which overshadows the apostles. Just like in John’s vision of the kingdom to come, there is ‘no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb’ (Rev 21.23).
Light in the Psalms
The psalms talk so often about ‘the light of your face’ that this is clearly an idiom, similarly ‘the light of the living’, ‘the light of my eyes’; but the emphasis in the psalms is more on the contrast between night and day, darkness and light, God stepping in to rescue the sufferer from peril or darkness. God is described as ‘my light’ far less often than he is addressed as ‘my strength, ‘my song’, ‘my fortress’. I wonder if this is partly a result of when the words were written. The psalms date back a very long way, we don’t even know how far; but certainly to nomad times, when light was rare and precious, and mostly you went to bed as soon as you couldn’t see any more. The Gospels date from a later time of settlement, when people were (mostly) living in little towns or great cities, and candles and lamps were less unusual. Jesus can call himself the light of the world because light is something we all grasp the benefit of, as well as something everyday. You would not want your Saviour to be steak or caviar; you need him to be bread. ‘He makes the blind see’ would not mean anything if everyone were blind and no one understood the joy of sight.
Darkness: absence of light, absence of God
Darkness can indeed mean in itself the absence of God (see the psalm of despair Ps 87/88), but it’s also a practical problem for the psalmist because he is worried that God will not be able to see him or know where he is so as to rescue him (one of Job’s comforters also talks about this, Job 22.13). Job himself is afraid of the darkness (23.16), but does not make the mistake of thinking that God cannot see through it.). One feature of God which impresses the psalmist is that he can see to do things even in dark places (‘You knit me together in my mother’s womb’ , ‘You know when I wake and when I lie down’ Ps 138/139). God can use the darkness to conceal himself (‘I answered, concealed in the storm cloud’, Ps 80/81). What the psalmist fears is the dark valley in Psalm 22/23. Darkness is scary and threatening, but God controls the darkness, and this means that God’s faithful child does not need to be scared even in the dark (‘I lie down at night, and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety’ Ps 4). ‘You, O Lord, are my lamp, my God who lightens my darkness’ (Ps 17/18).
The One who lights my lamp
God gives light to the psalmist, sometimes real, sometimes metaphorical. ‘Your word is a lamp for my steps and a light for my path’, sings the author of the longest psalm, which is all about the Law, 118/119. God is regularly described as ‘shining forth’, which again I think must be an idiom (Pss 50/51, 75/76, 79/80, 96/97), but many of the psalms describe a need for real light, not metaphorical, and long for morning to come. God will help at the dawning of the day (Ps 45/46). Joy comes with the morning (Ps 30/31). God is even better than the coming of dawn: ‘Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord’ (Ps 129/130).
Haydn’s stunning portrayal of light in The Creation is probably the best-known, because it is so effective. What does he do? He shows us darkness and chaos with deep rumblings of the orchestra, masterfully portraying disorder and formlessness by an artful use of perhaps the most formal of the arts. He keeps the sound gentle and hesitant, almost groping. And then light is created; we have a huge major chord which just keeps reverberating. The pitch goes up, everything is bright and noisy. I’ve added that particular link because it’s in rehearsal, so you can see very clearly how the tension is all in the music, not in the occasion, or the dress, or anything else. So exciting.
You can’t do that every time the word ‘light’ is mentioned in a psalm, but I have noticed that I tend to place it on an upper note comparatively and give it some stress (I think this must be the musical equivalent of not putting your light under a bushel). It helps that it’s a strong, monosyllabic word (in both German and English). And where there is light in a psalm, the music tends to be major rather than modal or minor; it just feels right.
The light shines in the darkness
We are in the dark part of the year at the moment, in the northern hemisphere, and Christmas is a feast of light-in-darkness. (So is Hannukah, which happens at a similar time, and Jesus would have celebrated it.) The next few Christian celebrations after Christmas are different ‘epiphanies’, ‘showings-forth’, ‘shinings-forth’: Epiphany itself, and then Candlemas, which used to be seen as the last feast of the Christmas season, when the baby Jesus is taken to the Temple and Simeon greets him as’a light for revelation to the Gentiles’. This is the fulfilment of the prophecies of Isaiah. ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light’; here he is, and the darkness is over.
© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.