St John the Evangelist – Patronal Feast, transferred
Sunday, May 6th, 2024
Genesis 1:1-5, 12-19; 1 John 1:1-9; Psalm 92:1-2, 11-14; John 20:1-8

lux in tenebris lucet

John Donne, in his poem “Resurrection: Imperfect,” plays with the notion of the light that comes into the world in Jesus. The poem is addressed to the sun, but a sun whose light now pales in comparison with the light shed on the world in the resurrection.

Imagine it is Easter morning, after the resurrection but before the sun has risen. “Sleep, sleep, old sun,” Donne writes. “Sleep … and rest … a better sun rose before thee to-day,” a better sun that even “enlighten’d hell,” in brightness making even hell’s “dark fires languish.”

It’s a poem that speaks to what is the true light of the world, and what isn’t really the light of the world: the true light that enlightens everyone is not the tired sun that can only shed light in this world; the true light is the resurrected one, shedding a light that can overcome the depths of the darkness of hell itself.

“Resurrection: Imperfect,” and Donne’s playful take on the light of the resurrection, makes for a nice poem to call to mind today. It is our Patronal Festival—the day we celebrate the parish’s patron, St. John the Evangelist, the saint we are named after. The poem is a nice one to call to mind because it might help shed some meaning for us on our parish motto, lux in tenebris lucet. Translated it means “light shines in the darkness.” Today I’d like to look into what it might mean for us to have such a motto.

So first thing: what is the light in our motto? I know that I figured, at least at first, that the light is us. And it’s a nice thing to imagine, that we are the light, the light that shines into the darkness of the world around us. It’s a nice thing to imagine, that we are the light, because that would make us a beacon of hope. Shouldn’t we be that? A lighthouse on a stormy sea, a lantern in the wilderness, a spark of fire on a cold night?

It’s kind of nice to think of ourselves this way, as a light to others in this distressed time, truly helping people and doing good in the neighbourhood. We know that there is real despair around us; there is poverty, addiction, and homelessness. And if we were the light, we could certainly help overcome that kind of darkness. Couldn’t we?

The motto, though, lux in tenebris lucet, light shines in the darkness, comes from the Bible, it comes from the very first chapter the Gospel according to St. John, St. John the Evangelist, our patron, and we find it just five verses in. The light, here in John’s Gospel, is linked closely to the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, and this Word, this living light, we are told is coming into the world. The true light of the world is the Word of God; this is the true light that shines in the darkness.

And what becomes clearer as we continue to read John’s Gospel is that this light that is coming into the world is not simply some celestial overspill, the light that comes into the world is Jesus, the Word of God incarnate: “I am the light of the world,” says Jesus later on in John’s Gospel. “Whoever follows me,” says Jesus, “will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

And so we begin to put together something about our motto, lux in tenebris lucet, and this light that shines in the darkness. The light is not us, not quite, as nice an image as it would be. Instead the light is something that is shed upon us, a light of life offered to us in Jesus. And this now helps us understand what the darkness is, too—the darkness is that which conspires against God, and especially against God in Christ, the light and life of the world.

This is a relief to me, that the light of our motto is Jesus, and not me, or even us together, as St. John’s. Honestly, most days I feel something more like a guttering candle, shedding a shaky, shadowy light, but still trying really hard to brighten things up. I figure Alexander Solzhenitsyn was right, when he famously wrote that “[t]he line separating good and evil passes … right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.” That’s to say, the darkness isn’t out there, and the light in here; the light and the dark are in here.

We try; we succeed sometimes; we fail a lot of the time; we know we should treat one another better, but we fall back into bad habits; even when we do something right, our best intentions don’t overcome the parts that seem to always go wrong, somehow … We have bright moments, we have our dark moments, and truly overcoming the darkness of sin and death that conspire against God takes a greater light than we can conjure from within ourselves.

As Donne puts it, there is a better sun. A better sun not content to simply brighten up the world, but a sun able to enlighten hell itself, “and make the dark fires languish in that vale.” A better sun that allows us to be honest about our own darknesses, those spaces in our lives—as individuals, as a community, and in civil society—marked by that which conspires against life and human thriving: the darknesses we know, the darknesses we share, but darknesses being overcome by the one that can overcome them: the light that is the Word of God having come into the world.

Donne changes course in “Resurrection, Imperfect,” from the analogy of light to the analogy of alchemy, where Christ is described as pure gold, and then as a tincture that can turn base metals into gold. Perhaps this change in analogy is why he thought the poem imperfect. What he goes on to say, though, is that it is in the Word made flesh—crucified, buried, and resurrected—that we are transformed and made well.

Donne writes that its like we are made of base metals, lead and iron; but Christ Jesus is the tincture that transforms us into pure gold. In his resurrection, Jesus now is “[o]f power to make e’en sinful flesh like his.”

The Word of God, the Word of life that is the Son of God coming into the world, comes into the world in order that we might have life—and by taking on a life like ours, and having himself been purified in death and resurrection, he can now transform our lives into lives like his: he can make us, like him. Or as John’s Gospel might put it, the light of the world is able to make us children of light.

This is the good news of the light that comes into the world, the light that shines in the darkness: that in this light—the light of the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected—that in this light the darkness is dispelled:not just the darkness out there, the darkness of a broken world, but the darkness in here, too—a darkness now overcome by the power of the better sun, “Of power to make e’en sinful flesh, like his.”

The Revd Cannon Preston Parsons PhD