Slide 15 Slide 2 Foto di Filippo Maria Gianfelice

“I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD” - Second Sermon of Lent 2024

Friday March 1st, 2024

In these Lenten sermons, we have proposed to meditate on the great “I Am” (Ego eimi) pronounced by Jesus in the Gospel of John. However, there is a question that arises regarding them: were they really pronounced by Jesus, or are they due to the later reflection of the Evangelist, like many parts of the Fourth Gospel? The answer that practically all exegetes today would give to this question is the second one. I am convinced, however, that these statements are “of Jesus” and I will try to explain why.
There is a historical truth and a truth that we can call real, or ontological. Let us take Jesus’ affirmation: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). If, due to some unlikely new discovery, we would come to know that the sentence was in fact historically pronounced by the earthly Jesus, this would not prove it is true (the person who pronounced it could be deceiving himself!). What makes it “true” is that—in reality and beyond any historical contingency—he is the way, the truth, and the life.
In this deeper and more important sense, each and every statement that Jesus utters in John’s Gospel is true, including his solemn declaration: “Before Abraham came to be, I AM” (Jn 8:58). The classic definition of truth is “perfect correspondence between a thing and the idea of it” (adaequatio rei et intellectus); revealed truth is a perfect correspondence between a reality and the revealed word that expresses it. The great words that we will meditate on are therefore of Jesus: not of the historical Jesus, but of Jesus who, as he promised to the disciples (Jn 16:12-15), speaks to us with the authority of the Risen One, through his Spirit.
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From the synagogue of Capernaum in Galilee, today we move on to the temple of Jerusalem in Judea, where Jesus went, on the occasion of the Feast of Tabernacles. Here the debate with “the Jews” takes place, in which Jesus’ self-proclamation is inserted that, in this meditation, we want to collect:
I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness,
but will have the light of life (Jn 8:12).

This word is so pregnant and so beautiful that Christians immediately chose it as one of the favorite designations of Christ. In many ancient basilicas – such as in the cathedral of Cefalù and Monreale in Sicily – in the mosaic of the apse, Jesus is represented as the Pantocrator, or Lord of the universe. He holds an open book in front of him and shows the page where those very words are written, in Greek and Latin: Egô eimi to phôs tou cosmou— Ego sum lux mundi. – I am the light of the world.
For us today, Jesus the “light of the world” has become a believed and proclaimed truth, but there was a time when it was not just this; it was a lived experience, as sometimes happens to us, when, after a blackout, the light suddenly returns, or when, in the morning, opening the window, you are flooded with daylight. The First Letter of Peter defines it as a passing “out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pt 2:9; Col 1:12ff). Recalling the moment of his conversion and his baptism, Tertullian describes it with the image of the child who comes out of his mother’s dark womb and is frightened by contact with air and light. “Coming out,” he writes, “from the common womb of the same ignorance, [we Christians] trembled at the light of the truth.”
We immediately ask ourselves the question: what do the words of Jesus, “I am the light of the world,” mean for us, here and now? The expression “light of the world” has two fundamental meanings. The first meaning is that Jesus is the light of the world as he is the supreme and definitive revelation of God to humanity. The incipit of the Letter to the Hebrews states this in the clearest and most solemn way:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe (Heb 1:1-2).

The novelty consists in the unique and unrepeatable fact that the revealer is himself the revelation! “I am the light of the world,” not “I bring light into the world.” The prophets spoke in the third person: “Thus says the Lord!;” Jesus speaks in the first person: “I say to you!” In 1964 Marshall McLuhan launched the famous slogan: “The medium is the message”, meaning that the means by which a message is spread conditions the message itself. This saying applies in a unique and transcendent way to Christ. In him the means of transmission is truly the message; the messenger is himself the message!
This, as I was saying, is the first meaning of the expression “light of the world.” The second meaning is that Jesus is the light of the world in that he sheds light on the world, that is, he reveals the world to itself; he shows everything in his truth, for what it is before God.

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Let us reflect on each of the two meanings, starting from the first, that is, from Jesus as the supreme revelation of God’s truth. From this point of view, the light that is Christ has always had a fierce competitor: human reason. We speak about it, not with polemical or apologetic intent, that is, to know how to respond to opponents of the faith (it would contradict my initial purpose), but to confirm ourselves in the faith.
The debates on faith and reason—more exactly, on reason and revelation—are affected by a radical dissymmetry. The believer shares reason with the atheist; the atheist does not share faith in the revelation with the believer. The believer speaks the language of the atheist interlocutor; the atheist does not speak the language of the believing counterpart.

Because of that, the fairest debate on faith and reason is the one that takes place in the same person, between one’s own faith and one’s own reason. We have famous cases in the history of human thought of people in whom an identical passion for both reason and faith cannot be doubted: Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, John Henry Newman, and we could add John Paul II, Benedict XVI…
The conclusion each of them arrived at is that the supreme act of human reason is to recognize that there is something beyond it. It is also what most ennobles reason because it indicates its ability to transcend itself. Faith is not opposed to reason but it supposes reason, just as “grace supposes nature.”
There is a second misunderstanding to be clarified regarding the dialogue between faith and reason. The common criticism addressed to believers is that they cannot be objective, since their faith imposes on them, from the start, the conclusion to arrive at. In other words, it acts as a pre-understanding and a prejudice. Attention is not paid to the fact that the same prejudice also acts, in the opposite direction, in the non-believing scientist or philosopher, and perhaps in a stronger way. If you take for granted that God does not exist, the supernatural does not exist, and miracles are impossible, then your conclusion is also predetermined from the start.
An example among many. Knowing the vision Freud had of reality, could he admit that the “universal love” of Francis of Assisi had a supernatural component called grace? Of course not, and in fact, he makes it a “derivation of genital love.” St. Francis is just “the one who went furthest in using love for the benefit of his internal feeling of happiness.” In other words, he loved God, men, all creation, and, in a very special way, Christ’s Crucifix because this gave him pleasure and made him feel good!
Modern people, instead of the truth, place the search for truth as a supreme value. Lessing has written: “If God were to grasp all truth in his right hand, and in his left, only ever-living aspiration to the truth, were it even on condition of being eternally wrong, and he were to say to me: ‘Choose!,’ I should humbly bow toward the left saying: ‘This one, Father! Pure truth belongs to you alone.”
The reason for this is quite simple. As long as you are researching it, it is you who leads the game as the protagonist, while in the presence of the Truth recognized as such, you no longer have a chance and must pay “the obedience of faith.” Faith posits the absolute, while reason would like to continue the discussion indefinitely. Like the Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights, human reason always has a new story to tell to delay its surrender.
There are only two resolutions to the tension between faith and reason: either to reduce faith “within the limits of pure reason,” or to break the limits of pure reason and “put out into the deep.” A bit like when Dante’s Ulysses reached the “Pillars of Hercules,” once considered to be the end of the Earth, and decided not to stop there but rather to make wings out of the oars for a bold flight. ⁠
I must, however, be coherent with my own premises. The discourse on faith and reason, before it becomes a debate between “us and them,” between believers and non-believers, must be a debate between believers themselves. The worst kind of rationalism, in fact, is not the external but the internal one. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “My message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor 2:4–5), and again: “The weapons of our battle are not of flesh but are enormously powerful, capable of destroying fortresses. We destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (2 Cor 10:3–5).
What the Apostle feared has often occurred among us. Theology, especially in the West, has increasingly distanced itself from the power of the Spirit, to rely on human wisdom. Modern rationalism demanded that Christianity present its message in a dialectical way—that is, submitting it, in all respects, to research and discussion, so that it could be part of the general effort, philosophically acceptable, of a common and ever-provisional self-understanding of human destiny and of the universe. But in doing so, the proclamation about the death and Resurrection of Christ is submitted to a different—and supposedly superior—instance. It is no longer kerygma but only a hypothesis.
The danger inherent in this approach to theology is that God is objectified. He becomes an object we talk about, not a subject with whom—or in whose presence—we talk. A “he”—or worse, an “it”—never a “you”! It is the backlash of having made of theology a “science.” The first duty of those who do science is to be neutral toward the object of their research; but can you be neutral when you are dealing with God? This was the main reason that led me, at a certain point in my life, to abandon the academic teaching of theology and to dedicate myself full-time to preaching. The consequence of that way of doing theology, in fact, is that it becomes more and more a dialogue with the academic elite of the moment and less and less a nourishment for the faith of the people of God.
From this situation we only go out with prayer, speaking to God before speaking of God. “If you are a theologian you will truly pray, and if you truly pray you are a theologian,” an ancient Father used to say.” St. Augustine made his most enduring—and his safest!—theology while speaking to God in his Confessions. The contemplation and imitation of the Mother of God is also helpful. She never had anything to do with abstract ideas about God and her Son Jesus but only with their living reality.
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I mentioned, in the beginning, a second meaning of the expression “light of the world,” and it is to it that I would like to dedicate the last part of my reflection, also because it is the one that concerns us most closely. It is, as I was saying, the instrumental meaning, so to speak, in which Jesus is the light of the world: that is, insofar as he sheds light on all things and he does towards the world, what the sun does towards the earth. The sun does not illuminate or reveal itself, but illuminates all things on earth, making everything appear in its true light.
Also in this second sense, Jesus and his Gospel have a competitor who is the most dangerous of all, being an internal competitor, an enemy at home. The expression “light of the world” changes completely in meaning depending on whether the expression “of the world” is taken as an objective genitive, or as a subjective genitive; depending, that is, on whether the world is the illuminated object, or instead the subject that illuminates. In this second case, it is not the Gospel, but the world that makes us see all things in its own light. The Evangelist John exhorted his disciples with these words:
Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life is not from the Father but is from the world.
The danger of conforming to this world – the worldliness – is the equivalent, in the religious and spiritual sphere, of what, in the social sphere, we call secularization. No one (least of all myself) can say that this danger does not also loom over him or her. A saying attributed to Jesus in an ancient non-canonical writing states: “If you do not fast from the world, you will not discover the kingdom of God.” This is perhaps the most necessary fast of all today: fasting from the world, nesteuein tô kosmô, according to the aforementioned saying!
The world we talk about and to which we must not conform is not the world created and loved by God, it is not the men of the world whom, indeed, we must always meet, especially the poor, the last, the suffering. “Mixing” with this world of suffering and marginalization is, paradoxically, the best way to “separate” oneself from the world, because it means going there, whereof the world flees with all its might. It means separating yourself from the very principle that governs the world, which is selfishness.
The change must take place first of all in the way we think. St. Paul exhorts the Christians of Rome saying,
Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect (Rom 12:2).
There are many causes at the origin of worldliness, but the main one is the crisis of faith. Faith is the primary battleground between the Christian and the world. It is through faith that a disciple of Christ is “in” the world but not “of” the world. Understood in a moral sense, the “world” is those who refuse to believe. John writes: “This is the victory that has defeated the world: our faith,” (1 John 5:4). In the Letter to the Ephesians, there is a passage on which it is worthwhile to reflect a little longer. It says:
You were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you once lived following the age of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the disobedient (Eph 2:1-2).

1.Terullianus, Apologeticum 39,9: “ad lucem expavescentes véritatis”.
2.Thomas Aquinas, S.Th., I, q. 2, a. 2 ad 1.
3.S. Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, IV.
4,G. Lessing, Eine Duplik, I, in Werke 3, Zürich 1974, p.149.
5.See Inferno, XXVI, 125: “We of the oars made wings for our mad flight” (trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow).
6.Evagrius Ponticus, De oratione, 61 (PG 79, 1180).
7.Cf. Clement Al., Stromata, 111, 15 (GCS, 52, p. 242, 2); A. Resch, Agrapha, 48 (TU, 30, 1906, p. 68).
8.H. Schlier, in “Geist und Leben 31 (1958), pp. 173-183.

The German exegete Heinrich Schlier made a penetrating analysis of this “spirit of the world” considered by Paul to be the direct antagonist of the “Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:12). Public opinion plays a decisive role in it. Today we can call it, even in a literal sense, “the power of the air,” because it spreads above all through virtual means of communication.

This – writes Schlier – is a spirit of great historical intensity, which the individual can hardly escape. We stick to the general spirit, we consider it obvious. Acting, or thinking, or saying something against it is considered senseless or even an injustice or a crime. Then we no longer dare to face things and situations and life itself in a different way from how it presents them… Its characteristic is to interpret the world and human existence in its own way.

This is what we call “adaptation to the spirit of the times.” The morality of the Mozartian “Così fan tutte.” Today we have a new image to describe the corrosive action of the spirit of the world, the computer virus. From what little I know, the virus is a maliciously designed program that penetrates the computer through the various ways (exchange of e-mails, websites…), and once inside, it confuses or blocks normal operations, altering the so-called “operating systems.”

The spirit of the world acts in a similar way. It penetrates us through a thousand channels, like the air we breathe, and once inside, it changes our operating models: it replaces the “Christ” model with the “world” model. The world also has its own “trinity,” its three gods, or idols to adore: pleasure, power, and money. We all deplore the disasters they create in society, but are we sure that, in our own small way, we ourselves are completely immune to them?

In this struggle against the world outside us and that inside us, our great comfort is that the risen Christ continues praying for us to the Father with the words he addressed to his disciples before leaving them:

I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world… As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world… I pray not only for them but also for those who will believe in me through their word (Jn 17:15-20).