03.26.2017 Preaching Text: “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.” (Ephesians 5:8)
The readings for today have to do with seeing, spiritual seeing. The basic idea is that God sees life differently than we do. Unaided by the Holy Spirit we humans live in spiritual darkness, unable to perceive the essence of the world in which we live.
This follows from the basic lesson of Adam and Eve. After they are expelled from the Garden of Eden, after, that is, they decide to play God and thus organize all of life around their limited, finite, human understandings, they are destined to live in darkness. Without an existential awareness of the true God, their lives center not on divine things, but fleshly things.
The whole point of the gospel, as we’ve been saying, the whole point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, is to restore the lost primal relationship between human beings and God, and in so doing restore our “sight.”
But the transition into the light happens in fits and starts. We are so inured to a worldly, fleshly perspective that seeing life as God sees it is elusive.
One of the historical figures most revered by the religious and non-religious alike is St. Francis of Assisi. He was born 1181/1182 and died in 1226 A.D., during a period otherwise known as the “High Middle Ages.” This period followed a long stretch that began after the fall of the Roman Empire, generally dated around 476 A.D., though its decline began much earlier.
During this post-Roman Empire period known as the “Dark Ages,” Western Christianity as a unified whole all but ended. In many respects it was kept alive only by monastic communities dotted throughout the former empire, stretching as far as Ireland and Scotland (and elsewhere).
These communities were largely responsible for maintaining not only Christianity, but safeguarding literature, art, and learning. In an era before the printing press, this is where rare and one of a kind books were kept safe. These communities also served as places of pilgrimage for the religious.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote a lovely little book on St. Francis and argued that the period in which Francis lived was integral to his “success.” Only after emerging from the crucible of the Dark Ages, in other words, was the High Middle Ages prepared to embrace the Christian God again.
Chesterton notes, for instance, how the world of paganism was filled with gods and demons. Thus, if one were to walk out into any garden, he or she would be confronted with a whole panoply of demons, each corresponding to a given flower or plant. Spiritual danger was everywhere.
Only after Europe had “repented” of its paganism, giving rise to a robust, nascent Christianity, was that garden reclaimed as a place showcasing God’s beauty, magnificence, and spiritual glory.
Francis, known for his love of nature, was therefore not an early prototypical hippie yearning to “get back to nature,” or one who sought to celebrate a this-worldly materialism, but a saint who saw God’s holiness in and through all of God’s creation, including nature. His was, in earnest, a new way of seeing, of spiritual seeing.
The High Middle Ages, as the name suggests, is considered by many as the height of Christian devotion. During this short-lived period, people believed not only that God had created all things but that God could be evidenced in and through all things.
This started to change, theologically, with an English Franciscan by the name of William of Ockham, who was born roughly 50 years after Francis’ death. Ockham started a movement called Nominalism which was to change the way the West “saw” the world.
For Francis, as we’ve said, God’s holiness was infused in and through all things. For Ockham, and Nominalism, this was no longer true. Ockham’s intent, ironically, was to free God from being bound by earthly things. Thus he emphasized God’s transcendent freedom.
This meant, however, that what we now experience of the world is by necessity merely human, finite, and only tangentially related to God, who alone exists in heavenly glory. An artificial and ironclad wall between God and humanity had been created.
This idea ushered in a long stretch of time leading up to today where, as the Renaissance phrase had it, “man is the measure of all things.” Human life today is far removed from the God of the High Middle Ages, necessarily set apart and remote.
The practical implication is that we moderns don’t tend to “see” God in the midst of everyday life. God is out there, up in heaven, if he’s there at all, while we operate within a blinkered, Materialist perspective.
The other day I was looking for a new home screen for my computer. Since late fall I’ve had a dark, brooding 1905 photograph of the Flatiron Building on Fifth Ave. in New York taken by Edward Steichen, in the rain. Among other things, it captures a horse-drawn cab in the foreground, its driver wearing, in the manner of the day, a top hat. The darkened sky, the spare, leafless trees, and the looming triangular building set an eerie, beguiling mood.
Given that it’s now spring (or so I’ve been told), I decided to look for something a bit more seasonal. I chose a painting by the French artist, Claude Monet, featuring a blooming garden amidst trees with light green leaves, each bursting forth under a complex, early spring sky of darkness and light.
Monet, as with all great artists (including Steichen), brings out the inner light and luminosity our dreary everyday world no longer sees.
It is this same inner light of which Paul and Jesus speak. They urge us to take off our blinders, accept the Spirit’s urgings, and see life and the world as God created it to be seen – with spiritual content.
In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, from Ephesians 5, he uses the word “idolatry” to describe our spiritual blindness, a blindness that causes us to misunderstand our existence. Amidst such blindness we “[use] people or religion or things just for what [we] can get out of them…” Seeing the world in a spiritually darkened, dulled, utilitarian way, we transgress against the God whose holiness is infused in all that is.
But Christians are now, Paul says, rendered children of the day, who exist in the “bright light of Christ,” as Peterson phrases it. In this light we are able finally to see “the good, the right, the true…” With our path now illuminated with this inner light, we needn’t waste our time on “useless work, mere busywork,” on those things Peterson calls “the barren pursuits of darkness.”
Again, our Christian faith teaches us that in Christ the darkness of sin, that spiritual state of being separated relationally from our Creator, has been overcome. We live now as children of the day, of the light.
Thus when Jesus places mud on the blind man’s eyes, the symbolic meaning is clear: that now, through the light of the Holy Spirit, Christians are able see creation as God created it to be seen.
And in and through this holy light, life can never be the same. Amen.