We must provide the light of Christ for our age
By: By Msgr. Stuart Swetland
Fourth Sunday of Lent, April 3
1 Samuel 16:1b,6-7,10-13a; Psalm 23:1-3a,3b-4,5,6; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
One of my favorite pastimes, when I have some free time, is to visit art museums. I often take my breviary with me to pray with the religious art work. Many of the pieces in today’s museums were originally commissioned as devotional items for cathedrals, churches, convents and monasteries. I find great joy in praying with such devotional art.
Sometimes this will elicit comments from the curators or security guards.
One of my favorite techniques in religious art is the use of light and darkness to emphasize certain theological points. One technique, called chiaroscuro (literally, in Italian, “light-dark”), was used by the great masters such as da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio and Rembrandt to give their work a life-like three dimensional look, especially when depicting the human body. One thinks, for example, of the classic Caravaggio painting of the body of Jesus being taken down from the cross.
I discovered recently that this technique was also used in Northern Europe by artists influenced by the mystical visions of St. Bridget of Sweden. St. Bridget had described in her vision of the Nativity that light had emanated from the new born baby Jesus illuminating the manger. Her writings influenced artists such as Hugo van der Goes to make Jesus the source of light in their paintings.
These techniques attempt to illustrate a theological point. This idea is taught by Jesus in today’s Gospel: “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Jesus is the light of the world. His life and his teaching illuminate our hearts and minds as he shows us the way to the Father.
This “way” is, of course, the way of love, the way of the cross.
MAKING CHRIST PRESENT
Jesus is the light of the world. This is why the metaphor of coming out of darkness into light is such an effective illustration of faith. “Once I was blind, now I see” can be an apt description of the experience of conversion. The man born blind in today’s Gospel comes to sight and faith in “seeing” Jesus — first as a man; then, as a prophet; and, finally, as Lord.
But Jesus told his disciples that he was the light of the world “while he was in the world.” With Jesus’ ascension into heaven, have we lost our source of light? Of course, the answer is “no” because Jesus remains with us. He is present in the Scriptures. He is present sacramentally in the person of our priests. He is present wherever two or three gather in his name. He is present in a unique way in the Eucharist.
But Jesus is also made present (or at least he is supposed to be made present) in the lives of each and every Christian. We are to reflect the light and warmth of Jesus into a world grown dark and cold. By our baptism, we become sharers in the mission of Jesus. Now, we are the light of the world. We are called to bring the light of Christ into every area of our lives: our homes, our work, our schools, our marketplaces, the places we recreate, etc.
This is why our tradition speaks of baptism as enlightenment. Through the sacraments of initiation we become partakers of the light of Christ. Our minds are elevated to grasp the truths of faith. Our will is strengthened by the grace of hope and charity to be able to live the faith that we profess. We become a source of light because of the presence of the Triune God within us.
Many sense that these times are particularly cold and dark. I am not sure of this for it is always difficult to compare. But I do know from standing numerous midnight watches when I was in the Navy, that it is always darkest just before the dawn. The darkness of our age, like every age, needs the light of Christ. We must be a source of that light: “You are the light of the world. . . . Your light must shine before all so that they may see the good that you do and give glory to God” (Matthew 5: 14a, 16).
MSGR. STUART Swetland, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, is the Most Rev. Harry J. Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary University in Emmitsburg, Md.