The Light and the Dark

All that is wondrous and beautiful — all of creation — was formed from the light and the dark.

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The Scripture

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, as a wind from God swept over the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together, and let the dry land appear." And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so. God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

Photo of a flower

Colorless, Flavorless, Odorless by Deborah Beach Giordano

And God Saw that the Light was Good

Creation's lightWe are told that, at the beginning of creation, light was the first essence drawn forth and the first to be recognized by God as “good.” From that point the days began, and our world took shape. But what is this “light”? It is an aspect of Day — but it is not the sun, which is brought into being later. It is not a thing, not an object, or a shape. Odorless, flavorless, colorless, this light seems to be a sort of condition or essence, a state of being or a kind of power.

In the Scriptures we find that wisdom is often described as “light,” and is contrasted with the “darkness” of ignorance. To “walk in the light” doesn’t mean that we’re only supposed to travel when the sun is out, it means that we are to act with understanding and compassion; to be caring as well as intelligent. It means that we follow the holy teachings: that we use our heads as well as our hearts.

This Light is not a color, but a quality; it is brightness, clarity of vision, understanding, insight. More than education or intellect, logic or reasoning, holy Light is an aspect of one’s character: a way of being, of putting knowledge and ability to good use. It is making wise choices, in righteous conduct, in effecting shalom. It is enLIGHTenment.

In contrast with this light is darkness — not a color, but a condition of mind: blindness, unseeing, devoid of understanding; hapless, helpless. It is not ignorance per se, but mis-use or dis-use of potential. Darkness is power and possibilities swirling randomly, confusedly, carelessly, thoughtlessly; stumbling along without direction or concern. It is like going into the basement and choosing not to turn on the light: having wisdom but not putting it to use is dangerous and potentially harmful, even deadly: it keeps us “in the dark.”

Goodness All Around

Medieval Mss - God Creating the WorldIn the beginning, God called forth the light — and separated it from the vast swirling all/nothing darkness. Without that separation there would have been no sky or seas, no stars or sun or moon, no earth or its creatures; nothing, only “a formless void.” Power and potential would have continued to swirl and slosh around randomly, accomplishing nothing.

And God saw that the light was good.

It is as if, in recognizing the light, seeing the goodness within it, the Eternal became conscious, self-aware; awakening to God’s own creative ability from out of pure potentiality.

The Light dawns — and it was good. All that is arises from divine illumination.

The Created Order

Working in the Light, the Holy drew forth the heavens and the earth from out of the chaos and confusion. Plants and animals were created, and their continuation was ensured. There would be perennial growth and constant new beginnings: grasses and fruit trees were equipped with seeds to reproduce themselves, animals (and human beings) would, likewise, bring forth others of their kind.

God transformed potentiality from out of the darkness into beauty and order, establishing regular signs and seasons in the heavens and on the earth that we may recognize and interpret. In creation there is consistency that we can rely on; a nurturing that blesses, replenishes, and restores. It is a fully-functioning self-renewing system — and, from the first, God knew that it was “very good.”

The darkness holds opportunities, possibilities, power and potential — but, like the contents of an unlit basement, these cannot be seen. The canned vegetables, Christmas ornaments, spare batteries, shelves, staircase, and spiders are in there, hidden from view; inaccessible. Light illuminates our understanding and enables us to put what is in the darkness to good use — as well as giving us the ability to recognize what we should avoid.

The Light and the Darkness

To convey the profound difference between understanding and ignorance, teachers, priests, and prophets chose the most extreme — and therefor most memorable — comparisons, such as the difference between white and black or between sight and blindness. But these are metaphors, teaching tools: not ultimate truths.

Equally we might use clear/cloudy, nutritious/toxic, clean/dirty as comparisons; but these miss the mark. The point is that there can be no shades of gray, no middle ground, no weasel space to allow even a little bit of consent-to-wickedness to enter in. One either walks in the light or stumbles blindly in the dark; one chooses to follow the Way of the Lord, or refuses to do what is known to be right and good.

He has shown you, O mankind, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
      ~ Micah 6:8

It is in knowingly ignoring what is good — turning from the holy Way, intentionally leaving the basement light off — that we fall. A righteous life and an unrighteous one are as different as night and day. Or black and white. Or between those who see and those who are blind.

To live in the Light is to draw on holy Wisdom in our conduct and in our thinking. It is following the Way of the Lord, shining the light of understanding on the vast, swirling potentialities in our world. It is making choices that draw forth goodness and beauty, that nurture and build-up; it is an attitude of radiant, life-giving joy.

Literally in the Dark

Basement Monster by Bill RobinsonIt would be ridiculous to believe that those who are sighted are good and wise, and that blind people are evil and ignorant. The same is true of the idea that people are color-coded: that white-skinned folk are a holy tribe, and that black people are stupid or evil. Those who think that way are genuinely in the dark, having succumbed to literal-mindedness.

Analogies and metaphors are meant to convey information in a picturesque shorthand: “the light” is like a candle burning in the night — it isn’t literally a candle. Darkness is like an unlighted basement filled with stuff — it isn’t literally a room under a house.

Such words and images are meant to help us. Like the proverbial fingers that point to the moon — but are not the moon, they are guides to lead us to better understanding — not as substitutions for the concepts themselves. The terms Light and Darkness are signposts and indicator lights that can serve to illuminate (!) our thinking, but we will be misled if we take them literally.

The Wisdom of Omission

Who is like you among the gods, O Lord — glorious in holiness, awesome in splendor, performing great wonders?
      ~ Exodus 15:10

Judaism has traditionally prohibited physical depictions of God: for who can sculpt the wind, or know the color of compassion, or draw a picture of perfect love? It is also a wise and healthy preventative measure: an image is a metaphor and liable — likely — to be misunderstood, and taken literally. The image then becomes an idol, adored and bowed-down to as if it were holy, treated as if it were capable of hearing, and knowing, and performing great wonders. It is perceived to represent holiness — and that sense of holiness will be transferred to whatever (or whoever) resembles it.

Good Shepherd

And that is why the fact that none of the Gospels describe Jesus’ appearance is a holy gift. We are not told what he looked like — whether he was short or tall, slim or stocky, if his eyes were brown or grey or hazel, his exact age or the day of his birth, whether he wore his hair long or short… All we know is what is ultimately important: his humanity.

The only time that the physical appearance of Jesus is described in the Scriptures is at the Transfiguration. Then, like the Wisdom He brings forth and embodies, the Lord’s essence is revealed as light:

And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light.
      ~ Matthew 17:2

Jesus is of the Light: good and wise, illuminating. Like the Light, He is radiant, glorious; like a candle, regardless of its color, whose flame brings light to the darkness. No single community or people can claim Him or claim His special favoritism. Christ came to all humanity, His Way is open to all Who seek Him — all people, everywhere.

May Wisdom’s light illuminate your understanding,
warm your heart, and guide your path
and, in turn, fall, like holy seed upon good ground.

Christ’s grace and peace be with you,


Suggested Spiritual Exercise

Walk in the Light, and let its radiant glory shine forth in you.