“whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
How do we live the truth and change direction always to be heading into the light. In the midst of the lenten negativity of the readings I am finding this questioning of the integrity of my own life. I want to smugly point to this good work or that moment of clarity in my life and say “see I am all about light” but the point of this reading is not to brag (nor to self-condemn) but to realise that we can’t and don’t live 100% light-illumined and truthful lives but we are always striving to “come to” a light which in its completeness is unapproachable (the bible is full of the transcendence of God just as much as the immanence).
No one person or organisation is fully “the truth” or “the light” none but Jesus of Nazareth perhaps in his claims to be one with Divine Wisdom herself. The best we can do is turn toward God, be influenced by the same Holy Spirit that lived perfectly within Jesus.
How do we know the light of God in a world where there are so many lights clamouring for us to follow them…lights of supposedly infallible authority (which over time reveal themselves to be contaminated with exploitative uses of power); lights of manufactured desires and the consent to turn a blind eye to injustice that go with it (that glitter at the peripheries of our privileged vision even when we strive to be better than that); the light of reason, “the enlightenment” all things rational, efficient, proven, positivist and ultimately reductive of the human complexity to a set of algorithms and chemical reactions?
We live in a dazzling cultural shopping mall of neon lights and fairy lights and lava lamps and light up running shoes and goodness knows what other lights that stake a claim on our need for security and soothing, our hollowness and anxiety, our preference for easy answers.
And God is not just one such easy answer.
The first reading tells us that God sends us messengers to urge us to turn away from the wrong and dangerous things we do. Which practices are “abominations” however? Ideas of right and wrong are hotly contested and each person feels that it is “everybody else” that is failing to listen to the word of God.
In qualitative research we talk about “reflexivity”, being honest about who we are, what our bias and standpoint are and why we might believe what we believe. Relexivity in practice can also involve looking at our own behaviour and habits to find ways to be as coherent as possible (morally coherent, intellectually coherent) when we are teaching or leading others. An obvious example of bad practice is adults using hitting as a punishment, while trying to teach a child to value peaceful and non-violent strategies to their problems; refusing to listen to honour promises while trying to teach the child respect and honesty…etc…One sentence that sums up this lack of coherence that I have heard actually used is “Don’t you fucking swear at me.”
These ways of teaching or leading show that I am more concerned with my own power over you, than with the content of what I claim to want to teach you. Jesus as the intimate, barefoot-walking word of God came to break bread with us and lie down on our earth and suffer dishonour and death in solidarity with those who seek liberation. Jesus did not just preach, but also modelled. The light in our lives is that which gives us more than escapist distraction, more than certain authority, more than a freaking display of colour – however beautiful- but the light comes to take us a step toward something permanent and another step and another. The light is something transformative of our darkness, more than a night-light for our terrors but a beacon to come closer and be healed (and sent out).
The second reading is that one about faith through grace and not works. It gets misused at times to claim that it doesn’t matter what we do, only whether we “believe” as if belief is a state you can switch on at will a magical spell against having to try to grapple with the real world. The flip-side of this is that we can never really be “good” or deserve credit for our work or our choices. I largely grew up with such a depressing view of my own unconditional unworthiness, even when I have done everything I can all the credit belongs to God and I should still do better.
The word “grace” should surely evoke something more full of joy and beauty than this scenario. We can agree with the reading, we do not “earn” grace, we are not “saved” (or loved, or called or come into being) through any work we have achieved. Life is a gift and the kindom of God also is a pure gift. This does not mean that God does not call us to also give, to be agents of grace to others (and to ourselves). Grace is like a light that can bathe our lives with holiness, that can slowly spread to banish shadows of fear and hatred. So we are always/already loved and saved but then we are caught up in the desire to grace the world, to grace ourselves just as a baby is already beloved before it can even make eye-contact or smiled, but this love bathes their sense of what it means to be and the baby is moved to want to participate in the family and learns all sorts of amazing things (how to sit up, how to form words, how to use humour) not because the baby only becomes human through these “works” or learning but because the humanity the baby already possesses drives them to desire to participate in connection and social agency.
It is the same with the kindom of God. We are loved and treasured no matter how fast or slow our “development” is within God’s call to us. We are called and challenged to participate as we become able, because it is only fair to do that and because it gives God joy and pride in us when we take notice of the work of creation and learn to dance it with her. Perhaps it is convenient to talk about “belief” as the ingredient that brings out our loving response to God but there is also a danger that belief becomes a talisman against having to really, deeply care and do.
Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert for everyone to look upon and be saved. We want it to be that easy don’t we? We want to ignore every other part of salvation history where the people continued to quarrel and contest the meaning of various teachings, continued to make mistakes and had to be called back again and again to look after the widow and the orphan and the foreigner. Symbols bring us together but it is the “together” not the symbol that enacts change. Symbols point to deeper truths, belief is one of those “works” that is incidental to the grace which really saves.
Faith is a relationship, an orientation not an act of will, a contract or a set of tick-boxes.
Seeking light this International Women’s Day I visit the grave of my mother and read the bible-verse that we decided summed up who she was for us and summed up also where she drew her wisdom and loveliness (as we saw it) from.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5)
God’s light is not a competing light display in the shopping mall of shallow dreams. It goes out to where the darkness is and stubbornly shines there. We look for the light in the parts of life we are afraid to face. We know the light will be there and we come to it. The darkness has not overcome it…not then, not now, not ever.
The light shines.