“ ‘The star-glass?’ muttered Frodo, as one answering out of sleep, hardly comprehending. ‘Why yes! Why had I forgotten it? A light when all other lights go out! And now indeed light alone can help us.’ ”1
The interplay between light and dark is an ongoing part of our lives. In the literal sense, we live in a world where the regular appearance of both provides a measure of regulation to our activities. Figuratively though, we use light and dark as a tangible way to embody more abstract concepts. Chief among these is the clash between good and evil. The fact that this use of light and dark often feels cliché testifies to its longstanding appropriateness. Among the many places we see this utilization is Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. Throughout the story, contrasts between light and dark highlight the points of conflict between good and evil. This scheme is evident as Frodo and Sam, approaching Mordor, enter Shelob’s lair. Their path lay through “a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought. Night always had been, and always would be, and night was all.”2 As the journey continues, it becomes apparent they are not alone.
It is at this point, turning to face their pursuer, that Sam reminds Frodo of the gift he received from Galadriel. “Slowly his hand went to his bosom, and slowly he held aloft the Phial of Galadriel. For a moment it glimmered, faint as a rising star struggling in heavy earthward mists, and then as its power waxed, and hope grew in Frodo’s mind, it began to burn, and kindled to a silver flame, a minute heart of dazzling light, as though Eärendil had himself come down from the high sunset paths with the last Silmaril upon his brow.”3 It’s right at this moment that Tolkien sheds light4 on our own battle with evil. Frodo does not work at producing the light—he simply holds it. The act of holding onto and trusting the phial ignites it. Sam’s experience is similar: “As if his indomitable spirit had set its potency in motion, the glass blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand. It flamed like a star that leaping from the firmament sears the dark air with intolerable light.”5 Notice again the two fold action of holding and hoping. Light comes, and with it victory over evil, because Sam and Frodo hold it.
This facet of Tolkien’s tale came to mind while listening to a sermon pulled from Philippians. One bit of Paul’s phrasing particularly captured my attention: “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life . . .”6 (Philippians 2:15-16). Right here, Paul connects both shining the gospel’s light and holding fast to the word. For us, it is another reminder that the Christian life is not primarily our hard work, with a gospel power boost for good measure. Rather, it is the gospel that works through us. Not that we are off the hook when it comes to hard work. The clear direction from this passage is to hold fast to the word of life. Taken with the rest of Scripture, Paul is bringing us back to both our responsibility to faithfully serve our King and to rest in him for the strength to carry out this service.
It’s easy enough to say. Living this way is a different matter. Shelob continued pursuing Frodo and Sam, and tomorrow we will once again face the remnants of sin, both inside and outside ourselves. Holding fast to the gospel isn’t a magic spell that eliminates all opposition or makes our Christian walk a piece of cake. Odds are, it will be hard. In fact, looking at western culture, it is quite possible that living as a Christian will get harder before it gets easier.
But, at the same time, that is the reason we ought to hold fast to the gospel. Talking about Galadriel’s phial, Tolkien references the story of Eärendil, who in a much blacker period of Middle Earth’s history sailed to Elvenhome to beg for the help of the Valar. Connecting Eärendil’s story to Frodo’s reminds us that Frodo is not really fighting on his own. There are other powers at work. Similarly, our constant hope in the gospel is a hope in the fact that God came to earth and defeated evil. Whatever we face, we do not face it alone. This trust provides the confidence for us to join Daniel’s companions in saying “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18).
As we continue walking through life this week, let’s continue holding tightly to the gospel. By refusing to step out in our own way, on our own power, we are freed to use Christ’s strength to follow Christ’s lead. And the tighter we continue holding to him, the brighter will be the light that shines through us.
When do you find it hardest to hold fast to the gospel?
Do we have a responsibility to help the rest of the Church hold fast to the gospel? If so, what should this look like?
2. Ibid, 745.
3. Ibid, 747.
4. Pun unintended, but enjoyed and approved nonetheless.
5. Tolkien. The Lord Of The Rings, 757.
6. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Photo courtesy of Dominique Josse