The Splendor of Light
If I may approach the subject of sacred music without diving into the worship wars, a recent time of personal devotion reminded me of one of the aspects of worship music I particularly appreciate. That is, songs which tickle my brain, allowing me to continue pondering God’s nature after the music has stopped, the service is over, and I am back into the grind of the everyday week. One such song is the hymn Immortal Invisible. In particular, I always find myself pondering the line, “Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee.”
I think this line has jumped out to me because it is a paradox. Light that hides? The hymn writer seems to be echoing the Psalmist’s observation that “in your light do we see light” (Psalm 36:9).1 This is a picture that makes sense—God is the illumination which permits us to see the rest of the world. John echos this picture when he writes, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). Curiously, though, the hymnist switches the image, saying that God is hidden by light. Instead of the God who illumines the world, we have God obscured by his own light.
Perhaps there is some room for this switch. After all, John goes on to say “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:9-11). Here, the coming of light is something which goes unnoticed, almost as if the light is invisible. Or, perhaps it is a bit more like Plato’s famous Cave, where the things people see are distorted shadows. John seems to be saying that, having spent so much time in the dark, humanity cannot recognize the Light when it arrives. The Truth is stranger than fiction, and humanity has a remarkable ability to filter out the strange from their conscious perception.
Plato’s Cave provides the perfect backdrop for one of my favorite books in Lewis’s canon, Till We Have Faces. This is a book which deals in contrasts, and two of the central contrasts are those of dark and light and rational knowledge and supernatural knowledge. Though these contrasts are drawn across the entirety of the book, this reference captures them in part:
“I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”2
The book unfolds as a complaint by reason against revelation. As Orual mourns the loss of her youngest sister, Psyche, she bitterly accuses the gods of punishing her for a failure to see through their darkness and obscurity. Instead of engaging with her reason, they leave her with the shapeless form of Ungit, representative of the dark and evil forces in the world. The complaint resonates with me, but as Lewis weaves the tale, we find that it is a complaint from the Cave.
Orual makes this clear when she asks the rhetorical question, “How can they [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?”3 Lewis uses the picture of having faces to represent understanding our nature and personhood. In effect, the question is, “How can we talk with God when we do not know who we are.” This thought is unpacked when Orual recognizes her true nature: “I am Ungit.”4 And here is the key to the hidden nature of the light: Until humanity recognizes that they are in the dark, they are unable to see the light. Instead, they remain in the Cave, trying to puzzle out the distorted shadows they take to be God and his workings. Or, as Chesterton puts it in The Man Who was Thursday,
“Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face?”5
While these started as reflections on the relationship of our perceptions of God and of God himself, they also bear a special connection to the Advent season. Advent celebrates the fact that God chose to not leave us in the Cave. Instead, he joined us in the Cave, making the dark place a holy place—not because it was inscrutable, but because God was fully present there.
Traditionally, Advent is a season both for remembering the waiting of God’s people for their Messiah, and for reflecting on our continued waiting for his return. In fact, for many traditions, it is a penitential season. There is something which is appropriate in this. After all, as Paul reminds us, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
Truly, each day we enter the fight of relinquishing our darkness and turning towards the light. One day, though, the darkness will be fully banished and we will see God, face to face. Until that day, as the shadows cloud our vision or we find the splendor of God’s light to be more than our eyes can handle, we continue to join the Church in waiting and praying: “Your Kingdom come.”6