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Christ, Our Light
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
In his address for the opening of the Holy Year for 1975, Pope Paul VI said something that must have seemed odd to many people. He stressed the need especially for a renewal of faith among the faithful during the Jubilee Year of renewal and reconciliation. What makes this seem strange is the fact that all the emphasis in religious circles these days is on love or social involvement. It certainly is not on faith.
Yet the Pope said what he did because he knows, better than other people, that true renewal of spirit among believers either begins with a renewal in what they believe or it is renewal only in name. Consequently, it is not only surprising but should be obvious that what the Church first needs today is for her members to deepen and clarify and strengthen their faith convictions. If their faith is what it should be, all else has the promise of a true renaissance in piety and the service of one's neighbor. But if their faith remains weak or confused, or contaminated with error, the bright promise of a reformation in the Catholic Church will turn out to be a dream or, worse still, a deceptive mirage.
My purpose here is to look at just one aspect, although a fundamental one, of this renewal of faith that the Vicar of Christ is urging upon the faithful. We shall look at the person of Christ, who is our Light, and ask ourselves these questions:
What does it mean when we say that Christ is the Light of the world?
How is it that so many people prefer the darkness to the Light which is Christ?
How can we distinguish between what is the light of Christ and what is the darkness that is not from Christ?
What implications does this have for the renewal of spirit to which we are specially called in the spiritual life?
The Light of the World
It is especially in St. John's Gospel that Christ is identified as the Light which enlightens every man that comes into this world. His followers are told to walk in this light so that they may be free, and without this light all is darkness and spiritual night.
So we ask, "How is Jesus the Savior also, and necessarily, our Light?" This is not an unimportant question in our day when there is so much confusion among Catholics, including not a few priests and religious.
If there was ever an age in the Church's history when the faithful needed the light of Christ's direction and guidance, it is our age. Theories and theologies on every conceivable issue, conflicts and controversies on all sides--until the head reels with dizziness on even some of the most fundamental positions of Catholic Christianity. Surely today, if ever, we need Christ the Light to save us from the fog of uncertainty that surrounds us on every side.
How is Christ the light of the believing soul? He is our light insofar as He has revealed to us, through the Church, those mysteries which until His time had been hidden from the beginning of the world.
What are we saying? We are saying that the Light of Christ is the Light that is Christ. His revelation of Himself to us is the knowledge that we cannot do without if we are to see what life is all about, what suffering is all about, what death is all about, and what life after death is all about.
It is remarkable how apparently wise unbelievers can seem. They are often so naturally brilliant, so educated, and so glib in their speech that we can be taken off guard.
Think of how respectfully our modern world looks upon men and women who have received professional degrees in some field like psychology or sociology, and how apologetic the average American is for not having gone to college. We have made a fetish of native intelligence and an idol of mental education, until people assume that if a person has the brains and the training he is, if not infallible, at least the most trustworthy to know the right answers to any questions raised by the human mind.
The last thing most people ask about an intelligent, well-educated person is whether he is a believing Christian.
Yet that is what mainly makes the difference. No matter how otherwise clever a person may be, or what his academic training, unless he shares in the revelation that Christ brought into the world, he is living in darkness and, as St. John tells us, "in the shadow of death."
This deserves to be emphasized because we are so naturally prone to think differently. It takes no small amount of insight and, I would add, courage to recognize greater wisdom in a believing child of ten than in a learned agnostic of forty.
Yet, the truth is that when Christ dwells by faith, in a soul, neither chronological age, nor intellectual ability, nor scholastic education really matter. His light confers on the one who believes such understanding of God and the things of God as nothing else can supply for.
Why is Darkness Preferred?
John the Evangelist said of Christ's contemporaries that they preferred the darkness to the light that Christ came to give to the world. Actually John was speaking for every age since then, and not only for first-century Palestine.
There is a curious twist in human nature that defies rational analysis, in that so many people literally prefer error to the truth and then glory in their preference, as though they had found a great treasure.
Why should this be so? No one but God fully understands. But at least we know something of an explanation that can help us escape the same fate.
The explanation lies in the fact that accepting Christ makes considerable demands on man's love of independence, on his desire for pleasure and ease, and on his natural dread of humiliation and pain.
Reflect for a moment on some of the leading themes of the Savior's teaching:
So the litany of sacrifice could go on. From beginning to end, the Gospels are a mosaic of quotable passages, one more demanding than the next. Taken together they are a formidable obstacle to our selfishness and a veritable mountain to climb in the following of Christ.
Is it any wonder, then, that so many people prefer falsehood to the truth? What happens is not what seems to happen. It is not so much that people literally choose the untruth, as untruth, or that they particularly relish a lie. No, it is rather that they prefer the self-gratification that what is untrue before God brings to their lives.
Take the simple fact of chastity. Christ is too clear on the purity He expects of those who call themselves His disciples to leave any doubt of His expectations.
On the other hand, what Christians call unchastity but the world calls the pleasures of sex offers too much bodily (and emotional) satisfaction to be ignored. So the untruth of unchastity is embraced not because it is untrue but, though untrue, because it is so pleasant.
We hear a great deal these days about the discernment of spirits. And well we might because there is great need for supernatural prudence to distinguish between what is truly Christian and Catholic, and what only pretends to be either or both.
With all this preoccupation, however, with discernment it is imperative that we keep things simple and not get lost in theological speculation.
The plain question is: How can we, practically speaking, know the difference between an inspiration from Christ and a temptation from the antichrist?
A good rule of thumb is to ask what side of our nature the impulse favors. Does it favor self-will or does it favor self-sacrifice? If it favors self-will, we can be sure the impulse is not from God, because self-will is another name for pride. If it favors self-sacrifice, we can be equally sure the impulse is from God, because self-sacrifice is another name for humility--and humility is certainly the sign of the presence of the Lord.
This simple rule is more useful than may appear on the surface. How many times a week and, for some of us, a day, we are conscious of contrary movements battling for the mastery of our souls. These movements take on countless different forms and they are almost infinite in variety.
We ask ourselves, I wonder if this feeling is a good one? Should I resist it or give in to it? I wonder if this idea is a sound one? Does God want me to follow it or ignore it? How can I tell?
So we return to what we had just said before. We apply the norm of self-will or self-sacrifice, and we cannot go wrong. At the heart of Christ's teaching to His followers is the message He gave us, namely, the doctrine of humble self-denial. He invariably leads those whom He is drawing to Himself by inspiring them to love His will more than their own, in a word, to die to themselves in the performance of what He wants them to do.
Having said all of this, however, we still have some implications to see--not the least of which is the problem of carrying into effect what our faith tells us is true.
This is where our trust in God becomes so necessary. For it is one thing to believe that Christ wants us to be like Him in meekness and humility of heart. It is something else to believe it so firmly that we act on our faith and then learn from experience how true this belief really is.
That is the secret. Christ is our Light because He truly enlightens. If we follow His illuminations we shall find out for ourselves how wise we shall become. We shall discover that being little in our own eyes is the greatest wisdom we can acquire. We shall grow in that deepest of all knowledge: that humility of heart produces peace of heart, and peace of heart gives joy to the heart--such as only Christ can give.
It is up to us to take the Savior at His word. The saints took Him literally. That is why they became saints, that is, persons who did not allow Self to stand in the way of Christ's light. His light gave them life, the life that is open to everyone who loves God more than himself and is willing to be despised in order that through him, God might be glorified.
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