Christ the Light
The theme of Christ as Light is a prominent one in the Christmas season. The Gospel proclaimed at Mass on Christmas day heralds Christ as “the light [that] shines in the darkness,” (v.5) and “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (v.9). The prologue of John’s Gospel was proclaimed once again at the Mass of the seventh day of Christmas.
This theme of light transitions well into the feast of the Epiphany as a feast of Christ the Light of all nations. In the Eastern churches, Epiphany is associated with the Baptism of the Lord, and in the West with the visit of the magi; in both, the image of Christ as Light is used.
St. Gregory Nazianzus, especially beloved in eastern Christianity, contrasts the light of Christ with the darkness of sin and ignorance: “Moreover he is called Light as being the brightness of souls cleansed by word and life. For if ignorance and sin be darkness, knowledge and a godly life will be Light (Oration 30.VI) St Gregory sees the double darkness of sin and ignorance as our need for Light. St. Athanasius too explains: “For that was the very purpose and end of our Lord’s Incarnation, that He should join what is human by nature to Him who is by nature God, that so humanity might enjoy His salvation and His union with God without any fear of its failing or decrease.” (Oration II.70)
St Augustine also joined these Eastern Church fathers in preaching and writing on this theme of the Light of Christ during the Christmas season. In the 15 extant Christmas sermons from St Augustine (Sermons 184–196, and Sermons 369–370), he refers to Christmas in several places as the “mystery of light” (190.1, 192.3, 194.2, and 196.1).
For Augustine, Christmas time was sacramental of the Light of Christ. The Christmas season ending with Epiphany is a time when the lengthening hours of darkness during the night time has come to a standstill after the winter solstice, and the process has begun to reverse course. The length of darkness of night slowly gives way to longer daytime, and this phenomenon becomes a symbol of the birth of Christ. The universal expanse of the darkness of evil and death came to a halt when Christ was born. A turning point occurred in which God’s light of salvation started to prevail over the darkness of sin and death until its final victory in the resurrection of Christ.
Yet illumination with Christ is not forced upon all of humanity, but as it is written in John’s prologue, it needs to be accepted: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” (vv. 10-11). This failure to accept Christ, the light, is rooted in a spiritual illness, according to Augustine. “Something similar occurs,” preached Augustine, “with a blind man facing the sun. The sun is present to him, but the blind man is absent to the sun. The same occurs with someone with a foolish, unjust, impious, or blind heart. Wisdom is present before such a heart, but to such a heart, it is as if it were not. (Tract. 1 on Gospel of John)
Augustine suggests that the root of this spiritual illness is pride, when he preaches that the cure to the blindness of heart is Christ himself by way of his humility: “Truly, the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and by virtue of this humble mystery the eyes of our heart could be cleansed, so we can see his majesty through his humility.” (Tract. 2 on Gospel of John) Later on in the same sermon he preaches, “No one could see his glory unless one be cured by the flesh of Jesus…By means of his flesh the vices of our flesh are extinguished, and by means of his death, death is extinguished, so that as this mystery happens in you, you too can say, ‘and we saw his glory.’” (Tract. 2 on Gospel of John)
He came,” Augustine preached, “clothed in healing human clay, to cure our interior eyes which our outer earthy vesture had blinded, so that, with soundness of vision restored, we who had before been darkness might become a shining light in the Lord, and so that the Light might no longer shine in darkness.” (S. 195.3)
Fr. Carlos Medina, O.S.A.