‘Hail gladdening light’ – Jesu, a light to see by.


A sermon for evensong at St Mary Whitkirk on the eve of the Transfiguration.

In a previous life as a science teacher, it was always interesting to find out what children believe about the world around them. When I taught about sight, I always began by asking the children to draw a diagram of how they thought their eyes worked. Young children almost always draw some sort of ‘sight rays’ coming out of our eyes.

They think sight is something coming out from us – rather than light rays bouncing off objects around us into our eyes. They think it’s something we control – rather than something that just happens when we open our eyes. They often don’t realise that dark is just no light entering our eyes.

In our reading tonight, Jesus refers to himself as the light. This is a theme running through John’s gospel, and we often think of Jesus, light of the world, bringing hope into dark places. But in today’s passage, Jesus says “Walk while you have the light…if you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.” Jesus, it seems, is the very light by which we see.

Today – when we can light our surroundings with the flick of a switch; when nightfall doesn’t mean stopping work; when we have so much control, it’s easy to become like those children – and forget it’s light coming in from the outside that lets us see.

In the same way, I think, we try to make sense of the world with reference only to ourselves. We reduce the world to something that provides for our wants. We reduce other people to the part they play in our lives. It’s only when our world is illuminated by something from outside that we can see things as they really are. It’s only when we have a reference point outside ourselves, a light that transcends our selfish selves that we can see properly.

The choir has just sung for us “Hail Gladdening Light” – this is thought to be the oldest Christian hymn in existence. Written in about the 3rd century, it was used in the evening at the lighting of the lamps. In Jerusalem, a lamp was kept burning in the empty tomb of Christ – and as this hymn was sung the lamps were lit from that lamp.

‘Hail gladdening light, of his pure glory poured, who is the immortal Father, heavenly, blest.’ Christ is the light who pours from God. Lighting the evening lamps from him was a statement that Christ is the light by which we see.

Just as our eyes can’t see unless there’s light – so our souls can’t see themselves properly without some reference point outside themselves. As Christians we would call this divine light – in effect, without Jesus we are in the dark. Without Jesus we can’t see how unjust our societies are, how wrong we often are in how we see others.

But the great thing about this light is that it’s also a person we can encounter. The divine light doesn’t just show up how lost we are. By becoming human – Jesus showed what being truly human looks like – humanity as God intended it.

Of course Jesus’ life shows up what’s wrong in our lives – where we fail again and again…but it also shows what is possible when a human life is lived as it should be – based on love. In Jesus we also have the light that helps us see others as Jesus saw them. It helps us move the focus from ourselves to those around us. It helps us to begin to ‘love one another as he has loved us’.

‘Walk while you have the light’ might seem a strange way to look at the Christian life – since so often it seems to lead us into the unknown, to ask us to give up the need to be in control. But seeing things in the light of Christ gives an alternative way of ‘knowing where we are going’.

‘Hail gladdening light’ the hymn says. The word ‘gladdening’ is apparently difficult to translate. It comes from the same word as hilarious but didn’t originally mean something to laugh at; it’s sometimes translated as ‘cheerfulness’…but doesn’t mean a surface smile. It really means a deep-seated joy. A joy that comes, as the hymn says from the ’Holiest of holies – Jesus Christ, our Lord’.

‘Walk while you have the light’ says Jesus. In Jesus we have the light that shows us who we are, and more importantly, who we can be. We have a pattern for how to live our lives. But also in the light of Jesus we know that we are children of God, loved by God and forgiven by God.

So whilst life often seems fragile and we find it hard to imagine what will happen next. Whilst we would often like the uncertainties removed – to know just what is the job we will eventually get? – to know what the result of medical tests might be. In a profound way – we do know where we are going.

Although it’s sometimes hard to hold on to – we know that wherever following Christ might lead us in this world – it will eventually take us back to God.

So letting the light of Jesus into our lives gives us a new way of looking at one another; it gives us a pattern for what our lives should look like; and it gives us hope that where we are going is our home with God.

I want to finish with the collect for the 4th Sunday of Epiphany – a season when we celebrate Jesus the light.

God our creator,

who in the beginning

commanded the light to shine out of darkness:

we pray that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ

may dispel the darkness of ignorance and unbelief,

shine into the hearts of all your people,

and reveal the knowledge of your glory

in the face of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.



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