The Danger of the Light
For Lent this year the church I attend is exploring the idea of light – of entering into the light, of letting light illuminate the truth. As much as Christians like to talk about the light shining into the darkness, we often forget how dangerous light can be. Light reveals things that we would rather keep hidden. Light forces us to face truths we would rather ignore. We forget in our haste to claim Jesus as a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path that carrying a light in the darkness isn’t safe. In the world pre-electricity, to go out into the darkness with a lamp or torch was not an act of the wise. Walking around in a pitch-black night with a torch made you a target for wild animals or other ill-intending creatures of the night. Hiding one’s light under a bushel is safe, shining a light is dangerous.
As I listened to the discussion last Sunday, the illustration that came to mind was the repeated attempts one reads of in the Hebrew Scriptures to remove the lampstands from the Temple. Granted, the scriptures speak of removing the presence of the pagan goddess Asherah and tearing down the poles or trees erected to her in the Temple, but as archeology shows, those poles in the temple were the lampstands or menorahs. Asherah as a symbol of the feminine and embodiment of sexuality and reproduction was depicted by a tree with seven branches in bloom (to represent fertility) as shown in the picture, exactly the way lampstands for the tabernacle/temple are described in Exodus 25. It was this symbol of the female and of sexuality that was repeatedly removed from the temple, only to return again and again.
I couldn’t help but think about the symbolism of this act of removing a lampstand of the feminine from the official place of worship. Light is dangerous. It illuminates structures of oppression and reveals the truth and beauty of women and the body. Such things are scary to a culture trying to cling to hierarchies of patriarchal power. It is easier to extinguish the light, throw the lampstands away, than to gaze upon that which it reveals.
This idea returned to me this week as I was discussing the scriptures read in the early church in one of my classes. The canon of books and letters Christians read pre-Constantine was significantly different than the established canon we have now. Most interestingly was that they included accounts of martyrdoms (like The Martyrdom of Polycarp) in the texts they looked to for worship and comfort. The point was made that pre-Christendom these texts of martyrdom that gave comfort to those suffering persecution as well as encouraged them to resist the ways of empire although popular in the early church were kept out of the canon once Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. Illuminating the oppressions and temptations of empire became too dangerous. It was easier to extinguish that light than to see what it revealed.
Even now to hold up lights illuminating the voice of women, the beauty of the body, or the ills of empire is dangerous. It is scary to have the truth revealed under the light. Doing so makes one a target of ridicule and accusations of heresy. Light makes it impossible to continue in the darkness of the status quo, once truth is revealed it cannot be ignored, only rejected. But that is the risk we take when we embrace the one who claims to be the light.