Light is really special.
During the last couple of centuries, scientists began to discover some really quite counter-intuitive things about light, the way that light moves, acts, has its being. We think of light as beams, rays, waves. But light is not only found in waves. Max Planck and Albert Einstein discovered that they couldn’t predict the behaviour of light waves as they should be able to; they had to divide light up into parcels, bits, photons. Light is not only wave, but particle too. It depends how you observe it as to which property it will exhibit; it depends how you look at it as to what you will see. Actually, I am told that this is applicable to all particle physics; but it began, as I understand it, with our learning about light.
Then, too, we have all played with prisms and seen how the different wavelengths within the spectrum of visible light translate into all the colours of the rainbow. But back in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that not all light is easily visible to the human eye. Infra-red and ultra-violet light may lie beyond the spectrum that we usually see; and yet we have heard them called light. The idea of light that we can’t see is quite something, when you think about it.
Light is really quite special.
Without light, we cannot grow, we cannot grow food, we cannot survive. Without light, we cannot survive. When a total eclipse of the sun occurs, reports say that even the birds fall silent. There is an eerie drawing in of breath as the world waits to find out if its light support system will indeed return.
In the beginning, at the start of Creation, the first creature that God spoke into being was Light. This was a couple of days (in the poetic world of Genesis) before the sun and the moon were hung in the sky to divide the daylight from the lesser light of the night sky. It’s not science, but the theological message of this evolution and delegation of light is that all light comes directly from God, and it is God who created the messengers of light that we now see, the sun, the moon, the stars, even our electric lights. Light, like us, was made in the image of God, whose face shines upon the heaven and the earth.
On the first page of our Bibles, light is created, and at the last, in the final chapters of the final book of our biblical canon, God lights us up without the need for the mediation of the moon or the sun; the Lamb is the lamp, and the face of God shines on all of the newly created heaven and earth.
Like any creature, our light can fail, and light can be abused. We hear of the problems of light pollution, the disturbances to our equilibrium that it brings. And there are old stories from the coast of Cornwall, that thin finger of land which points from the southwest of England out towards the Atlantic, whose tip is named Land’s End, about the wreckers. The wreckers were people who lay in wait for ships returning from the Americas filled with the wealth of the new world. Weary from their long ocean crossing, their spirits were lifted by the first sight of light from the mainland, the lighthouses of southwestern England.
The wreckers would take those lights and swing them on the beaches, near the shoals and the reefs, and lure the ships onto the rocks and live by their plunder; landlocked pirates, you might say. The wrong light in the wrong place was deadly.
It was one of the cruelest of crimes; not only because of the weariness of the sailors and their long months and even years away from home, but to use the very light that was meant to protect them, to bring them safely home, which raised their spirits and roused their hope – to foul that faith was diabolical.
John, the one who wrote the Revelation, lived in dark, dangerous and even diabolical times. The Roman emperor Nero had demonstrated the depths to which the worldly powers and principalities would stoop, and there did not seem to be an end to their evil. The light that Isaiah looked for to illuminate the holy city and draw the nations to God seemed to be failing. The temple was gone. These were dark days.
So John looked instead to a new creation, a new beginning, beyond anything he and the churches were now experiencing, when they would know and see and experience with fullness and certainty and safety and joy God with them, the glory of God shining upon them.
But here’s the strange thing. Back in the nineteenth century, scientists discovered that there is light that we cannot always see, which is naturally occurring in creation, which surrounds us, whether we know it or not. John’s vision is one of completion, of contrast, of a new creation. But we know that God is with us in this creation, in this life, in these times, whether or not we see the light. The consummation of John’s vision may be yet to come; but its light already shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.