Monday, 9 April 2012

Fire and light

The Pope's homily at the Easter Vigil on 7 April 2012 was about fire and light. As a great mystagogical teacher, Pope Benedict was not about to repeat platitudes. There was nothing trite about his exposition in this, surely one of the most striking homilies of his pontificate. "Whoever is close to me is close to the fire," said Jesus, according to Origen. The light of Christ is not a cold light but a warm one, the light of love, only harmful to those who reject it and do not welcome it into their own hearts. Fire is "the force of transformation", the Pope reminds us. For good reason it is associated with baptism, which the ancients called photismos, "illumination". The newly-baptized enter into a new day, a day of "indestructible life", which they see with the eyes of faith opened in them by the grace of God.

The Easter vigil begins at night with a bonfire, with the sanctification of the fire in the name of the God who through his Son "bestowed on the faithful the fire of [his] glory," and with one great candle lit from the same fire to represent Christ, the Light of the World. This is incised with symbols for the beginning, middle, and end of the cosmos, and "wounded" in the shape of a  cross by five grains of incense, before being carried in procession back into the church to stand at the altar throughout the Easter season.

The candle's light represents the beginning of the world, made out of nothing, to which the faithful bear witness. "Let there be light." The Prologue of John's Gospel takes up the tale of creation from Genesis. In Christ the world was made; and now in Christ it is made new. But why, in Genesis, are the sun and moon made later than the light? Of course, today we know that electromagnetic radiation (including light) was born billions of years before the sun and moon, but Genesis is not a scientific treatise, and the author was getting at another kind of truth. The Pope explains that by relegating them to the fourth day, the "divine" character of the heavenly bodies was removed and all things subordinated to the true light "through which God’s glory is reflected in the essence of the created being". Light is the revelation of truth, of goodness – the glory of God.
To say that God created light means that God created the world as a space for knowledge and truth, as a space for encounter and freedom, as a space for good and for love. Matter is fundamentally good, being itself is good. And evil does not come from God-made being, rather, it comes into existence through denial. 
After the night of death, the eyes of Jesus open once more upon the world. "Life is stronger than death. Good is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Truth is stronger than lies." The candle "is a light that lives from sacrifice. The candle shines inasmuch as it is burnt up. It gives light, inasmuch as it gives itself." And the light shed by Christ is the self-giving of divinity, of perfect love, which reveals reality as it truly is, in the mind of God.

Illustrations from, and William Blake.

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