To Live is to Follow the Light

“What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.”

Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900), “Walking on Water”
Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900), “Walking on Water” (photo: Public Domain)

Christians throughout the world recently celebrated the feast of the Epiphany, some on the traditional date of Jan. 6 (the “Twelfth Night” of the twelve days of Christmas) and others on the nearest Sunday (this year, Jan. 7).  In many cultures, Epiphany is a little Christmas.  Just as Dec. 25 commemorates Jesus Christ’s manifestation to his own people, the Jews, so Epiphany commemorates his manifestation to the gentiles, in the person of the wise men whose arrival is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.

The wise men or magi, sometimes called “kings” in reference to Old Testament prophecies of kings of the East visiting the Messiah, followed a star which led them to Bethlehem, to the house where Jesus lay.  They had some knowledge of astronomy, enough to know that the star was unusual; and the astrology to which the ancients gave credit led them to believe that this astronomical phenomenon heralded the birth of a new king of the Jews.

Still, they must have felt there was something more to the strange light than that.  After all, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar (as tradition names them) were not Jews themselves, and the Jewish people were not prominent in world affairs.  Why did the magi care about the birth of a new king in a minor foreign nation?  The star boded something more, suggested some ramifications personal to them, or larger than what they admitted to Herod.

Perhaps one indication of what they expected, or at least what they found, lies in the gospel for the earlier epiphany.

The Gospel for Christmas Mass during the Day does not come from the infancy narratives, but from John: “In the beginning was the Word …”  As John continues, clarifying the relation between the Messiah and God as one of identity, he adds the following:

“All things came to be through [the Word], and without him nothing came to be.  What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.” —from the USCCB readings for the Mass for Christmas Day.

John explains the Word’s creative role in terms of two fundamental things: life, and light.  Unfortunately, this is one of the many places where translation confuses.  The USCCB translation says that “What came to be through him was life,” but the Douay-Rheims has the more familiar “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”  This is a straightforward translation of the Vulgate, which reads “In ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominum.”

As usual, recourse to the Greek reveals the roots of the disparity.  In Greek, the passage reads “εν αυτω ζωη ην και η ζωη ην το φως των ανθρωπων.”  The precarious word here is that first word “en” which, like many Greek prepositions (and for that matter, English and Latin ones) is slippery in meaning.  It could stand for in, by, or with.  Jerome, composing the Latin Vulgate, chose to render the Greek “en” with the Latin “in,” which is near in sense to the English “in”—hence the Douay text.  I suspect the USCCB translation relies on the Greek, picking up the sense of “en” meaning “by”.  “By him was life” sounds like a clumsy idiomatic way of saying “By his power, life came to be” or, as the official translation says with more circumlocution, “What came to be through [the Word] was life.”  This makes sense in the context of the preceding verse, where the Word is described as responsible for the making of all things.

Why is this interesting?  In the first place, Jesus Christ, with whom the Word is identified at the end of the passage (“He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him”), is not merely one in whom life resides, but is the inventor of life.  I say “inventor,” because the word “creator” is easily glossed over; it is one of those religious words that are so deep we hardly hear them anymore.  An inventor is something special, particularly in America, in the American imagination.  There have been a thousand men who have improved the working of electric lights to give us the soft, warm, modern LED; there have been perhaps a hundred men who have discovered things about electricity enabling the improvements.  But we feel instinctively that there can only be one inventor of the light bulb (which is why there are endless disputes about whether the “real” inventor is Edison or someone else).

To be an inventor, then, is something more than being an improver or a discoverer.  An inventor is an origin.  To invent the cotton gin, the radio, the light bulb, refrigeration—this is the closest we human beings come to producing something new.  Oh, we borrow nature’s ideas and materials, but the thing made with them is a new thing, new at least to human beings in its power and complexity.

This sense of human invention is what we need to hold in our imaginations when we imagine God “inventing”.  God invented life, which is to say: he had the idea first.  Indeed, the USCCB translation makes it sound as if God were an inventor playing around who happened to stumble on an interesting thing: “What came to be through him was life.”  It would be irreverent, I suppose, to suggest that God created life by accident.  But the tone of lightness, of ease, seems right.  If God is anything like what we say He is, then the invention of life wasn’t a big deal.  It was, if you will, child’s play.  That’s an eerie thought.

Having established the Word as the creator of life, St. John adds that “this life was the light of the human race.”  The physical sense of the word “light” figuratively illuminates the point.  Our eyes see by the light of the sun; our minds see by another kind of light, a light which St. John identifies here with the life invented by the Word.  Just as physical light is that by which we live—the sun enables biological life to exist on earth; E=mcc, etc.—so too the life that God brought into being is simultaneously the beacon, that by which the way to live can be seen and understood.

Perhaps another way to say this is to appeal again to the example of the inventor.  When you walk into his shop and see the strange thing sitting on his workbench, he can show you that it works—the bulb turns on! the box repeats your words back to you!—and what is more, he can (if he really is the inventor) show you how it works.  He can take it apart and reassemble it, point to where the wires and cogs are, explain the physics involved, etc.  The inventor has the thing itself and the blueprints to the thing; indeed, you might say that in the inventor, from his perspective, the idea for the invention and the prototype and the blueprints are one and the same.

In the same way, God’s idea of life, existing life itself, and the rules for how life works are not distinct things, but related and even in some deep sense—deeper than for the inventor—identical.  Moreover, this very identity of life and light enables us to understand the true quality of what used to be called, sometimes with quaint interchangeableness, natural law or the laws of nature. The light, the way to live, and the “law” are the same; and the light is the same as the life. Natural law sounds, to the post-Kantian person especially, as if it contains a kind of ought (as it does); but it is first and foremost a statement of how life works.  To live is to follow the light; to fail to follow the light is to die.

“What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.” Whether they knew it or not, this was what the wise men came to Bethlehem to see: the newborn King of the Jews, yes, but also the One through whom life came to be, and by whom their life would henceforth be explicitly guided.  “[T]hey went back into their country,” not to a foreign land, but to their home, to live their old lives, but differently, like men who could now see why they lived as they lived: for they also “they went back by another way,” having encountered “the true light, which enlightens everyone.”

For further reading, see Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, paragraphs 89 -101.