By: The Rev. Ryan Young
There is really nothing more I think I could say about the “Word of God” spoken of in the prologue to John’s gospel. Anything that can be said has already been said by others far wiser and more learned than me–there’s an entire Beatles song to that effect. I sought for something to say about any of the other lectionary texts for this Sunday, but I could not stop hearing this gospel text multiple times throughout my day. Literally. Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and candidate for one of Georgia’s senate seats, quotes John 1:5 in a prominent campaign ad. “The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness overcometh it not.” As a resident of Georgia, I have seen this ad dozens of times (it’s just after Thanksgiving, so it will probably be hundreds by the time you read this in January). I don’t know if it’s just the repetition of that ad or because 2020 has felt like the avatar of “darkness,” but I’m finding a lot of comfort in considering Jesus as the light of the world.
“Light” becomes an important image throughout the fourth gospel. It’s used 21 times in John’s 21 chapters, and these few verses seem to set it up for the remainder of the book. The image of light, as much as the use of the term logos, serves to connect Jesus to the creation narrative. As Jesus is the Word which was active in creation and is the light of the world, he can be seen as the light that ordered the primordial chaos–light was the primary method that God used to order creation and its presence (day) or its absence (night) has always been the way people order and measure their lives.
Light is also revelatory. The light which shines in the darkness reveals all for what it is; nothing is hidden. It reveals reality and so is both liberating and disconcerting. It is embraced by those with the bravery to live truly, but is mostly hated by all of us who would rather hide parts of ourselves.
Light is a guide. It can be difficult for this image to land in a modern world of electricity and light pollution, but I often think of the times in my childhood when my family would drive out to Edisto Beach. The road was narrow and flanked by imposing oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. The headlights of our car only illuminated so far, but that illumination was enough to keep us on the road and prevent us from colliding with those trees.
Conversely, “darkness” also becomes an important image in John. Darkness can be a lack of enlightenment–a stumbling in the dark–or it can be something that people actively engage with–one hides themselves or things that they don’t wish found in dark places. However, the most important attribute that darkness has is its complete inability to extinguish light–a candle left alone in a dark room will go out once it is burned to the nub, but the darkness itself is not a thing which has any power to act upon it.
The most important interpretive lens for the fourth gospel is the reality and experience of the resurrection. The gospel of John only makes sense in light of the resurrection. It begins with an affirmation that the resurrected Christ has always been–that Christ shares the essence of the Creator–and it ends with a witness to the continued life and activity of the resurrected Christ. The resurrection is a prism through which we can view the darkness of any present situation. Because of the resurrection we can be assured that the darkness does not, cannot overcome the light. Because of the resurrection, Rev. Warnock can say that, in the midst of a global pandemic, there is hope.
Just because I was drawn to write about the image of light in John 1 doesn’t mean that others haven’t written more beautifully about it than I am able. And so, I close with this excerpt from Tolkien’s Return of the King in which Samwise, despairing and approaching resignation in a hostile land, sees a star through a break in the clouds.
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”