FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 12/17/2009
December 15, 2009 Volume 2 Issue 20
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Greg Carmer
December in New England can be bleak. Gray skies, bitter cold, barren trees. Yet when the Sun comes out, its light across the ocean or freshly fallen snow can inspire even the saddest of souls.
For centuries, people have found the Sun an irresistible image for representing what is highest, truest and most pure. Plato evoked the image of the Sun to communicate what the Form of the Good is like: the cause of generation and growth. Its power makes other things knowable, but itself is beyond knowing. Yet, Plato argued, one could know the Form of the Good indirectly through the use of logic and reason.
Likewise, the Greek philosopher Plotinus compared the source of all—the One, the Good, Life, Intellect, the Real, Divine Mind—to the Sun. To Plotinus knowledge of such purity and being could be grasped only through mystic insight. And during the first centuries after Christ, a mystery cult of Mithra sprang up in which one, by means of secret rituals, could lead his soul through the seven planetary spheres back to the place of abundance and light—the Sun. The god Mithra was likened to the Sun and solar events marked special religious holidays, especially the ‘date’ of Mithra’s birth, December 25th.
Whether logic and reason, mystic insight, or secret religious rituals, people throughout history have used a variety of means to seek the source of true life and light according to ancient religions and philosophies. It seems as if human beings are wired for such pursuit. For those who hold to the traditional Christian message of the Gospel, though, the true life and light of humanity was not a philosophy or an insight or a ritual, but a man who lived among his people. His name was Jesus. And each December we celebrate his birth into the world.
The Gospel writer John described him this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”
When Christ came, the light he brought, John says, was not understood. The Greek term used here is katalambano, which means to comprehend, take possession of, grasp, or get a handle on. In other words, that which John described as the source of life and the light of men is beyond our ability to get our heads around.
Yet, because light itself is such a powerful, life-giving force, it is also a helpful metaphor here, revealing to us a glimpse of both the humanity of Christ’s life as well as his divinity. Just as we cannot imagine life on earth without the energy of the Sun, we cannot imagine a world where the light of the Gospel hope was not born anew each year at Christmas. Indeed, the person of Jesus Christ—the one man who radically shaped human history—is the light of life who also inspired millions through bleak periods of their lives—and still does.
Unlike speculative philosophy and secret religions, the good news of Christ is remembering—especially at this time of year—how he made his dwelling with and among us; that God subjected himself to the very conditions of human existence. It is by living in the light of his testimony and Spirit that we can come to know the source of abundant life.
The epitaph on the tombstone of Joseph von Fraunhofer of Bavaria (1787–1826) reads, “He brought closer the stars.” Von Fraunhofer was the father of spectroscopy, that scientific process that allows us to determine the chemical composition of distant stars by analyzing the light which shown from them. By studying light, distant worlds are brought close. It would be fitting to say that Jesus brought closer the light and life of heaven, and that in ‘studying’ him, we can know true life.
This December as the Sun casts its brilliance across our lives, may the Christmas light guide us again, no matter how bitter cold or dark the world may seem.
Dr. Greg Carmer is dean of the chapel at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He and his wife Laura and their three sons live in Beverly, MA.