In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Since we began the Nativity season some weeks ago, beloved in the Lord, the hymnography and other texts used by the Church[are] full of the imagery of light and revelation. This happens in a very intense way twice a year: once during the winter and once at the very end of summer, at the feast of the Lord’s Transfiguration. The troparion of the Nativity proclaimed
Thy nativity, O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light, the light of wisdom—or chokhmah and the light of wisdom. For by it, those who worship the stars were taught by a star to adore thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory to Thee.
Again this past week, we celebrated the feast called Theophany, a Greek expression meaning “the manifestation of God.” Today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew includes a quotation from the Prophet Isaiah. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” People who sat in darkness have seen a great light. “And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” Notice there the equation of darkness and death.
As I was looking at this text yesterday, I observed a curious variation in it. Isaiah, in the text cited, spoke of those in darkness as “Ha’am haholekīm bakhoshek,” literally the people walking in darkness. Matthew, however, changes this description to sitting in darkness, kathēmenos en skotei. I went for my Septuagint right away, of course, as one does in puzzlements like that. I found that Matthew was actually closer to the Hebrew text than to the Septuagint. In fact, it’s quite different in the Septuagint. That is to say, I suppose—because I have to figure out what that means—that Isaiah’s people are walking around in darkness and Matthew’s people are sitting in darkness. I believe with St. Augustine that both texts are inspired.
Perhaps it means that those in the darkness now are unable to walk. If it’s real dark, it’s rather risky to walk. None of us, thank God, have ever experienced this kind of darkness. Even in our souls, we haven’t experienced this kind of darkness. Anyway, in Matthew’s gospel the darkness [is] so deep that people can only sit, and this is how Moses describes the ninth plague. Moses calls it “khoshek afelah.” The darkness of the ninth plague is not just khoshek (darkness); it is literally “darkness of obscurity, khoshek afelah.” It is extra dark, an extraordinarily-dark dark. When I typed that in there, my spell-check I couldn’t do that, warned me with a red line that I was repeating myself: a dark dark. St. Jerome, who translated from Hebrew, translated khoshek afelah as tenebrae horribiles, which literally is “horrible darknesses”: tenebrae horribiles.
Now, Egypt was the only place where this was going on. The rest of the world was doing just fine. They were out plowing their fields, making—well, they weren’t making horseshoes; it was too early for horseshoes—but they were doing the things that people do. But over Egypt and over Egypt alone reigned this dreadful darkness. Let me read you a description of the darkness from the book of Wisdom, known in the King James Bible as the Wisdom of Solomon. This is the end of chapter 17 of the book of Wisdom.
For the whole world was illumined with a brilliant light and was engaged in unhindered labor, while over those men alone a thick night was spread, an image of the darkness destined to receive them, but thicker still than the darkness were those men themselves.
In other words, they were darker than the darkness that surrounded them. In fact, they were the source of the darkness. Of course, that’s a meditation on the evils of idolatry, isn’t it?—of living in darkness.
The darkness of Egypt was not simply the darkness of the atmosphere without the sun. No, it was the primeval darkness of non-creation, the khoshek that ruled before the voice of God created the light. None of us have experienced that darkness. It is the property of that darkness that we really don’t experience it because, somehow, you think you’re in the light. That’s the darkness of those who have confused light and darkness.
Over the past decade or so, the past decade and a half, I have repeatedly declared among you, beloved, my persuasion this world right now is experiencing Egypt’s ninth plague, the plague of terminal darkness. We are seeing things in the world right now that we have never seen before. We’re seeing things in the world right now that I could not have imagined five years ago! This is the first civilization in all of history, for example, where marriage doesn’t have to be between a man and a woman. This is the first time that’s ever, ever occurred to the thought of men. And within the last two years, at least within the last two-and-a-half years, it has now become the acceptable norm. Listen: that, brothers and sisters, is darkness.
We have to be persuaded that we are living in a world of darkness. There’s no more light on Fox News than there is on CNN or MSNBC. We’re living in a world of darkness. It has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with the state of men’s souls. The major feature of this darkness is that it is terminal. The ninth plague is inevitably followed by the tenth, because death is simply darkness made visible.
And for this reason, this morning I want to consider with you the themes of revelatory light, and perhaps, if you invoke the Holy Spirit in your hearts, I can do it more calmly. [Laughter] I particularly want to think about the light that’s contrasted in the Scriptures with the khoshek. If the world truly is engulfed in the darkness of the ninth plague, then it behooves the children of light to gird themselves, to put on the garments of light, to take hold of their staves and prepare themselves for the march, for Egypt is small pickings beside our contemporary American culture.
First, let us reflect that darkness is not part of creation. In the Bible, darkness is what you have apart from creation. Darkness is non-creation. Darkness—the closest we can come to expressing darkness is the Latin word nihil, nothing, but it’s not just ordinary nothing. It’s extreme nothing, extraordinary nothing. It is over against this darkness of non-being that God says, “Let there be light—Ayhee ohr.”
There is such a thing as the love of darkness. Indeed, the love of darkness is extremely common. Let us recall what Jesus said to Nicodemus. He uses the word—in the Greek text, of course, because it’s the Gospel of John—k-r-i-s-i-s: krisis. You bring that into English, of course, the k is replaced by a c: crisis. It means “judgment.” Jesus says to Nicodemus:
This is the krisis; this is the judgment. The light has come into the world, but men have loved the darkness rather than the light. (Why?) For their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light. He does not come to the light for fear the deeds will be exposed.
The krisis, the judgment of humanity, is the confusion between darkness and light. The inability to distinguish them is always a sign of blindness and death. What does Isaiah, quoted by Matthew, say this morning?
The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. Upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death—thanatos—light has dawned.
Isaiah uses here the vocabulary of the creation scene, where God said, “Let there be light.” And the first thing God did when he created light was to separate the light from the darkness. “Ayyabdel Elohim, ben ha-ohr uben ha-khoshek. And God separated the light from the darkness.” Ayyabdel: he separated. This root, badal appears several times, something like six or seven times, in the first chapter of Genesis. It appears several times: separation.
You see, the first thing that happens when you have light—I’ve explained to you before, the light is the inner intelligibility of being—first thing you have when you have light, first thing light does is separate things. This and not that, this and not that, this and not that. There’s no mysticism here. There’s no absorption into a higher being. It’s this and not that. It’s always distinctions. In the Bible there is no ultimate reconciliation in existence. There’s no ultimate reconciliation. I know you have that in certain well-known Orthodox writers that everything will ultimately be reconciled. It won’t. The Bible gives us no hope for ultimate reconciliation. The just to go one way, the unjust to go another. There is no ultimate reconciliation. That would be, in fact, chaos: ultimate reconciliation. I would not want anything to do with a god who couldn’t see the difference between Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler. I just wouldn’t want anything to do with a god like that.
God separates the light from the darkness. There has to be a separation, because there’s no fellowship between light and darkness. One cannot simultaneously be a friend of God and a friend of the world. This separation in symbolized in the rite of baptism, where the baptizant, after repudiating the powers of darkness, turns 180° to the rising sun to welcome the baptizing Christ. In holy Scripture, darkness was the defining mark of Sodom at the time of Abraham and of Egypt at the time of Moses.
Second, this morning let us speak of what the rabbinical tradition calls the “tunics of light.” This expression involves an underlying play on words. The first mention of garments in holy Scripture, remember, is found in Genesis, where God is said to clothe Adam and Eve after the Fall in “tunics of skin.” The expression “tunics of skin” in Hebrew is katenot or. The expression “tunics of light” in Hebrew is katenot or. Did you pick out the difference between the two? It’s very subtle, isn’t it? Extremely subtle. They sound exactly the same thing. Katenot or, katenot or. The two sounds are nearly identical. In fact, there is a single letter difference of spelling in the two expressions. The one begins with an ayin; the other begins with an aleph. Other than that, it’s the same sound.
Accordingly, Adam and Eve, prior to the Fall, were clothed with tunics of light. After the Fall, God clothed them with tunics of skin. A single Hebrew letter distinguishes the two. By the Fall, Adam and Eve went from garments of light to garments of skin. This distinction lies surely with Jesus’ parable of the wedding-garment. You recall that the man not wearing that garment—where did he go? Jesus didn’t tell him to go home. He was cast into the outer darkness. He was not clothed in light. The saints must be clothed in the tunics of light, of which we read in the Bible’s final book:
Let us be glad and rejoice and give honor to him, for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his bride has made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white, for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
In the Gospel accounts of the Lord’s transfiguration, the evangelists make note of the light that shines from his very garments. I see in this detail a symbol of transformed culture, because Christ is not naked. It’s not just Christ, Christ alone; Christ is part of us, Christ part of human history, human culture. Clothing is, after all, among the most fundamental expressions of culture. The transfigured garments of Christ, his tunic of light, may stand to represent the grace-filled representation of human culture. The grace of Christ promises the transfiguration of all expressions of culture.
I wrote about this in my Christ in the Psalms, in my comments on the last psalm, Psalm 150. I’m not taking any of this from that book, but I recommend that book anyway, but I recommend that last section, the commentary on Psalm 150. In Christ, for instance, the wretchedness of contemporary art may find the grace of repentance, and that’s really what I have to say to the art industry in the United States: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Art may discover, once again, the splendor of truth.
In Christ, the characteristic of contemporary music may be exorcised and tamed, like the demoniac who encountered Jesus at Gadara. Music may find itself once again seated, clothed, and in its right mind. In Christ the nihilism of modern philosophy may be liberated from its prolonged service to darkness. Philosophy may discover the truth which in former days it professed to seek. In Christ, popular entertainment may purge itself of ugliness, or at least it may find the grace to shut its mouth when it has nothing to say.
Third, today’s story is about Galilee and prepares for Jesus’ Galilean mission. In the gospel of Matthew, the public life of Jesus both begins and ends in Galilee. When Jesus gives the Great Commission to the eleven at the end of Matthew, this takes place on a mountain in Galilee. This emphasis on Galilee is one of Matthew’s most significant traits. What does Galilee mean for Matthew? Well, today he calls it “Galilee of the Gentiles.”
He came and dwelt in Capernaum (says the text) which is by the sea in the regions of Zebulun in Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The land of Zebulun, the land of Naphtali, by the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.
Galilee was that part of the Holy Land where Jews and Gentiles lived together. It is significant that that is where the Christian Church started: in Galilee, the place where Jews and Gentiles lived together. This trait of Galilee is what made it an image and type of the Church. The Church is the place where Jews and Gentiles are equally welcome before the face of God. It is the place where the dividing wall has been broken down, and the Church is katholon, catholic, according to its wholeness. The Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Israel, the plēroma, the fullness of the people of God.