16 May 2023

Light is life—and truth—and goodness in general: no other physical phenomenon shines so deeply into the human soul. How a simple image can shed light on the divine—illuminated for us on the international Day of Light this 16th day of May.

There is a social movement comprised of various atheists who call themselves “Brights”, which might be taken to mean that they consider themselves “brighter” than people with other world views. For those unaccustomed to English idiom, “bright” can mean enlightened, brilliant, alert, or even clever.

That’s where the metaphor breaks down, however: these enlightened individuals who consider themselves religion-free are actually using the very imagery of religion to describe themselves. After all, since time immemorial, light has played a central role as a universal symbol in human spirituality. The Bible in particular contains a wealth of light metaphors.

Thrice illuminated

First of all, there is God the Father, the Creator of light. “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1: 3). This original light, which already existed before the sun and moon, illuminates the creative power of God and the fundamental goodness of His work. “And God saw the light, that it was good.”

Then there is God the Son, who says of Himself: “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness” (John 12: 46). Here the light represents liberation from the darkness of remoteness from God and the path to eternal life in the presence of God.

And then there is God the Holy Spirit, who appears above each of the disciples on Pentecost in the form of “divided tongues, as of fire” (Acts 2: 3). This fire is a symbol of the knowledge that the Holy Spirit gives to believers, of the power of enthusiasm, and of the spark that ignites faith through the proclamation of the word.

Putting the spotlight on symbols

Among other things, light signifies the following in Holy Scripture…

  • Revelation: light illuminates the darkness and makes the invisible visible. God is the One who creates truth and clarity. This is something on which the psalmist is counting in Psalm 43: 3 when he expresses: “Oh, send out Your light and Your truth!”
  • Orientation: light is a sign of God’s presence and guidance. He leads the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. “[God] did not take away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night from before the people” (Exodus 13: 21). And Psalm 119: 105 likewise attests: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
  • Hope: even the smallest light can break through the darkness. This brings confidence in difficult times. Psalm 27: 1 states: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
  • Life: light allows plants to grow, and these in turn produce oxygen for other forms of life—a process which is fundamental to life on earth as whole. In the same way, Jesus grants us spiritual life: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8: 12).
  • Duty: the light reminds believers that they themselves are to become light. “You are the light of the world,” says Jesus in Matthew 5: 14. In the 16th verse He then goes on to appeal: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Every believer is thus called upon to reflect the light of Christ. Let us practise love, kindness, and mercy in order to show others the way to God.

Everything under the sun

The symbolism of light is not restricted to Christianity alone, however. In Buddhism, for example, light stands for awareness and knowledge. Hinduism features the festival of lights known as Diwali, which celebrates the victory of light over darkness. And Islam describes Allah, that is, God, as “the Light of heaven and earth”.

So it is that light has become a cross-cultural symbol of knowledge, orientation, and hope. It is a universal symbol that builds bridges between religions—even to the point of including those who shine as “Brights”.

Photo: cooperr - stock.adobe.com