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COMMENTARY: Light of the world Shannon Vowell, Aug 26, 2009
By Shannon Vowell Special Contributor
Jesus is the Light of the world. Evocative claim, but what does it mean?
I was recently traveling home from Colorado with my family. We left in the early morning, when the twinkle of stars and dim buttery glow from a sliver of yellow moon were the only sources of illumination. The mountains surrounded us, but we couldn’t see them except in fleeting glances when the car’s headlights bumped into a ridge as we rounded a curve.
Then dawn broke. The breaking process was slow: black velvet to charcoal gray silk to smoky pearl chiffon sky. And once broken, dawn spilled out everywhere; nothing was the same.
Wisps of cloud that were first invisible and then unremarkable became transformed into rococo masterpieces of pink and gold, strewn across the horizon. The mountains themselves, once completely obscured as if they’d been inked over, were revealed and then changed—their craggy surfaces somehow smudged gentle by the first rays of sunshine.
And hidden life—deer grazing silently at the edge of the woods, a fox dashing between boulders, little creatures skittering about in the dirt—was suddenly, irrefutably evident.
That’s what it means to say that Jesus is the Light of the world. That revelation of life, that transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinarily beautiful, that is Jesus—His person, His process. Without Jesus, there is darkness, and all the dangers of negotiating a landscape blindly. With Jesus, there is light, and all the wonders of seeing a landscape suffused with vitality and color.
But that’s only part of the explanation of what “Jesus is the Light of the world” means. Another part offers less cozy contemplation. It makes us blink or look away as often as it blesses us with gorgeous visions, but it is as wedded to the first part as the thumb is to the rest of the hand.
You see, dawn’s transformational luminescence doesn’t just highlight the potential beauty hidden in the landscape. It also reveals ugliness that darkness covers over. On our way through the Colorado mountains, that ugliness included scars in the earth from strip mining, rotting road kill in the medians and an abandoned mobile home park, decaying in heaps. And it became uglier as the light strengthened.
So that’s what it means to say that Jesus is the Light of the world, too. It means that when Jesus is present, there is no denying the garbage, or the violence or the neglect. Sin cannot hide.
It means that Jesus lights everything up, the horrific alongside the holy. There it is; there we are. Without Jesus, there is darkness, and all the power to disguise, hide behind or look past ugly things. With Jesus, there is light, and all the vulnerability of being exposed as we really are, where we really are, engaged in what we are really doing.
In the church, we have an easy time talking about the first aspect of Jesus being Light to us. (The idea of safe passage through beautiful places accompanied by a sympathetic creative genius is rather attractive.) But Jesus’ light cannot be contained. Like dawn breaking in the mountains, when Jesus’ light breaks in, everything becomes clear. The good shines new and bright, but the bad just sits there: an indictment, or an urgent invitation to change.
At its heart then, the statement “Jesus is the Light of the world” is a statement about the transformational imperative for those who are Jesus’ disciples: Truth and beauty do triumph over sin and darkness, or the light is not Jesus.
The church needs to pray in earnest for dawn to break, no matter how uncomfortable the initial glare might feel. Because when we can see and acknowledge the truth of our own sin as illumined by Jesus, we will be free to see and receive into ourselves (and the world) the real power of Jesus as Light.