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Mysteries of the Light

“I turn to you like a flower leaning toward the sun.” I doubt that the overlap between Spice Girls fans and readers of TCT is very great. So let me give some background to this line. It is a refrain from a hit single in 2000 by former Spice Girl, Melanie C. The song is compelling: if you don’t know it, you might go to YouTube. (All the lyrics are “G-rated,” and so is this video [1].)

Like other popular songs originally written to express human love, believers may easily apply this one to God. The other lines of the refrain, simple as they are, can be interpreted in a deep sense, as expressing devotion and yearning for conversion: “I turn to you. ‘Cos you’re the only one. Who can turn me around, when I’m upside down. I turn to you.” Songs like this can be transferred to God (usually only in part and with care, of course), not only for the negative reason that human love can be idolatrous but also for the positive reason that the logic of all love tends to extravagant, unlimited statement.

There is a day’s worth of asceticism built into that line of Melanie C’s. The sun’s rising at the dawn of a new day is like the Son’s rising: “But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall.” (Malachi 4:2) He illuminates our deeds and works. We look towards him throughout the day, like a sunflower. Then, as “the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world lies hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done,” for the time, we give thanks.

“The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity,” the Catechism teaches, “is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in Himself. It is, therefore, the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them” – much like the sun. “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5) The Father is light, and therefore so also is the Son, “eternally begotten of the Father, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.” The Spirit too guides us by the light of faith.

[2]

The great, St. Pope John Paul II thought that this connection between God and light was so important that he made so bold as to add five mysteries to the Holy Rosary. We refer to them as “luminous mysteries,” but that’s not quite correct. All mysteries are equally luminous, or obscure, as the case may be. The Latin gets the sense better: they are lucis mysteria, “mysteries of the light.” That’s a truly mysterious idea – that light itself can be a mystery.

Take seriously the idea that the Trinity, like the sun, is the source of all life and light, and that it draws us toward itself, like Melanie C’s plant. Then it is not surprising that Akhenaten, an Egyptian Pharaoh in the 14th century B.C., embarked on his spiritual path by proclaiming, first, that the sun was the highest god, then, that it was the only god, and, finally that the sun was merely a visible representation of the only true god.

*

The early Fathers had to fight off accusations from ignorant critics that Christianity was an offshoot of the popular cult of Mithra, with its central sun god: “The hero-god first gives battle to the sun, conquers him, crowns him with rays and makes him his eternal friend and fellow,” the old Catholic Encyclopedia explains [3], “nay, the sun becomes in a sense Mithra’s double, or again his father, but Helios Mithras is one god.”

But the fact that two religions could be superficially confused does tend to show that the sun, and light, played an important role in the imagination of early Christians too. When Michelangelo painted Jesus in the Last Judgment on the model of the Belvedere Apollo, the Greek sun god, he was self-consciously following a venerable tradition, which bridged Christianity to the religious aspirations of humankind.

But the most direct, ancient analogues for Melanie C’s lyrics are the hymns for Lauds from the Divine Office, many of them taken from the time of St. Ambrose (5th century). They all turn to the sun, e.g., this morning’s hymn, for Tuesday of the “odd” week, Pergráta mundo núntiat. The second stanza (roughly translated) goes:

You, the Sun who shines forth through eternity,
O Christ, who has made us so as to live,
We turn ourselves toward you in song,
Passionately longing to enjoy you fully.

The first stanza proclaims Christ as “light from light,” in the way the sun can be seen to light up the landscape, endowing a grey scene with color:

For the joy of the world,
The dawn announces the rays of the sun,
Clothing all things in color,
And giving to each a power to shine forth.

And yet the greatest pull of the Son is towards contemplation of God, as the central stanza puts it:

You are the knowledge of the Father,
His Word, through whom all things
Reflect back light through an astounding design
and draw our minds upward to Him.

When the associates of St. Pope John Paul would express concern at how weary he looked at the end of the day, he would reply, “A pope should be tired at the end of the day.” When out of a similar concern they would ask him if he perhaps might sleep later than his accustomed early rising time, he would reply, “But then I would not see the sun rise.” And to think that some people thought that this mystic was speaking only literally.

 

*Image: Adoration of the Christ Child by Carl Marr, c. 1930 [Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend]

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is professor at the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book, on the Gospel of Mark, The Memoirs of St Peter, is coming out from Regnery Gateway in March 2019.