THROUGHOUT THE NEW TESTAMENT we read that light is somehow an apt description of God. Thus in St Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians we read: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Elsewhere we read even more explicit statements such as this, from the First Epistle of John: “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). We also hear Christ telling us, “I am
the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have
the light of life” (John 8:12).
Reflecting on these statements prompts us to ask: Are these teachings merely employing metaphors or symbolic images, or is light of the essence of God, both in Himself and in our world?
It is hard to imagine the apostles believing that light merely represents or symbolizes God. John, along with Peter and James, had witnessed Christ’s transfiguration on Mount Tabor when Christ’s “…face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). St Paul was on his way to Damascus, when “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him” (Acts 9:3) and he was blinded at the appearance of the risen Christ. These were concrete manifestations of light, not simply poetic images.
The Church, reflecting on these Scriptures over the first millennium, struggled to understand how the immaterial God could “be” light. Fathers like St Gregory of Nyssa and St Gregory the Theologian affirmed that God is incomprehensible to us because He is so beyond our nature. God is an impenetrable darkness to us as “He whom the soul seeks transcends all knowledge, separated from every part by His incomprehensibility as by a darkness.”
These Fathers, occupied with more pressing doctrinal issues such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, did not resolve the dilemma: how could God be both darkness and light. It was only in the fourteenth century that St Gregory Palamas, the archbishop of Thessalonika, came to interpret the Fathers’ teachings by making a distinction which would resolve this quandary.
God as Essence and Energy
St Gregory Palamas developed a patristic distinction between the essence of God, absolutely inaccessible to man, and His uncreated energies, which proceed from God and manifest His own Being, and by which He is present to us. In this way he affirmed that God is both knowable and unknowable, both light and darkness. We cannot know God as He is in Himself. As we read in the Gospel, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). We can know God in His energies (to know what God does, and who He is in relation to His creation and to man), because God has revealed Himself to humanity.
Gregory adapted the classical image of the sun, its heat, and its light to describe how the unknowable God can be perceived by His creation. St Gregory considered the sun as signifying God’s essence: God’s deepest self. God, he taught, was completely unknowable in His essence. In this he was in agreement with St Thomas Aquinas, who wrote in his commentary on Boethius’ tract On the Holy Trinity that “His essence is beyond all that can be known down here.”
And yet we are told in the Church that God touches us and in accessible to us. We say that the Spirit of God dwells in us and that Christ is in our midst. We have knowledge of and even communion with the unknowable God. According to Gregory, it is God’s energies – the light of God, His grace and His love – which touch us, not His essence. These energies are of God: they radiate from His essence as rays from the sun, but are not the essence itself.
The Uncreated Light
St Gregory asserted that what Peter, James and John witnessed at the Transfiguration of Christ was, in fact, the uncreated light of God, the divine energies which have been manifested to many saints who have come close to Him through repentance and unceasing prayer. According to Gregory, they saw “the essential majesty of God… the ultra-luminous brightness of the archetypal beauty, the formless kind of Divine comeliness… they saw the inconceivable and ineffable Light… they saw the Grace of the Holy Spirit, which they subsequently received, and it abided in them” (Third Homily in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts). This was not a sensory vision or an exercise of reason, but a deifying illumination by God, a gift of the Holy Spirit. In this St Gregory echoed St Maximos the Confessor who says that the Apostles saw the uncreated Light “by a transformation of the activity of their senses, produced in them by the Spirit.” The vision of the uncreated energy of God is theosis, our transformation by the indwelling presence of God.
In the Face of Christ
There are several recorded instances of people seeing the uncreated light of God, but most Christians have not had this experience. We are rather like the apostle Philip who asked the Lord Jesus, “‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ Jesus answered, ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’” (John 14:8, 9).
Philip had not witnessed Christ’s transfiguration, so when the Lord reminds him that he has seen the Father, Jesus is not speaking of the uncreated light. Rather, Jesus is referring to the spiritual witness of His teaching and His miracles. God’s presence is uniquely reflected in the words and works of the incarnate Lord for those who are given to see Him. Even when the light of His face is veiled by His humanity, it is possible to see God’s energies manifested in Christ. As He goes on to tell Philip, “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? … The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather it is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work” (John 14:9, 10).
One way in which we see the Father through Jesus’ teachings is through the parables and images He puts forth for us to consider. Many of them are incomprehensible to us on the basis of our experience alone. The father in the parable of the Prodigal Son displays an unconditional love beyond our ability to love. The steward who pays a full day’s wage for one hour’s work, the Samaritan who pays for a stranger’s care out of his own pocket, and the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to search for one which was lost present us with standards of love which shed a new and divine light on the Father. “The light of Christ,” as we say in the Presanctified Liturgy, “enlightens all” who allow His teachings to transform them.
In the Life of the Age to Come
St Gregory Palamas described the vision of the uncreated light, the experience of theosis, as a kind of betrothal, anticipating in this life the Light of the future Second Coming of Christ. It is the Light of the future age, which will be visible with the eyes of the heart and which will transform the hearts of those who behold it. The sight of the light of Christ in its fullness cannot but transform the beholder. At that point our divinization will be complete. As we read in the First Epistle of St John, “We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).