Delivered by Michael in a sacrament meeting of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Montgomery Ward, Cincinnati Ohio East Stake, Sunday 10 December 2017
In Islam and Judaism, because He must not be depicted by representation of or analogy to any physical thing, God is often discussed and understood in terms of light, as light is not considered a physical thing in the same way that a statue or picture is. In contrast, references to God and Christ as light abound in our Christian tradition–not because light is one of the few allowed analogies, but because in many ways, it is the best.
Sometimes, light is used as a metaphor of Christ’s power and influence in the world. Isaiah tells us to “walk in the Light of the Lord” (Is 2:5); Paul promises that Christ “shall give thee light” (Eph 5:14); and Joseph Smith discourses on the “light [which] proceedeth forth from the presence of God” (D&C 88:12). In just as many other instances, rather than light being something that Christ sends out to the world, Christ is portrayed as light itself: David sings that the “Lord is my light” (Ps 27:1); John quotes Jesus as saying “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12); and Jesus tells the Nephites after his resurrection that “I am the light which ye shall hold up” (3 Ne 18:24).
In 2004, Apostle Boyd K. Packer clarified in a talk to new mission presidents that besides the Holy Ghost which is also called God’s Spirit, there is a second and equally important Spirit that permeates the universe. This is the spirit of Christ. “This Spirit of Christ fosters everything that is good, every virtue (see Moro. 7:16). It stands in brilliant, indestructible opposition to anything that is coarse or ugly or profane or evil or wicked” (see Moro. 7:17). He quotes a First Presidency Message from 1916: “There is a universally diffused essence which is the light and the life of the world, ‘which lighteth every man that cometh into the world,’ which proceedeth forth from the presence of God throughout the immensity of space, the light and power of which God bestows in different degrees to ‘them that ask him,’ according to their faith and obedience.” (“‘Receiving’ the Holy Ghost,” Improvement Era, Mar. 1916, 460). He testifies that “this Light of Christ, which gives life, is within you.” Indeed, it is within all men and women who live or have lived or will live on this earth.
The Topical Guide extends this understanding: “The light of Christ is just what the words imply: enlightenment, knowledge, and an uplifting, ennobling, persevering influence that comes upon mankind because of Jesus Christ. For instance, Christ is ‘the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world’ (D&C 93:2; see John 1:9). . . The light of Christ ‘giveth life to all things’ and is ‘the law by which all things are governed.’ . . . It is also ‘the light that quickeneth’ man’s understanding (see D&C 88:6–13, 41). . . The light of Christ should not be confused with the personage of the Holy Ghost, for the light of Christ is not a personage at all. Its influence is preliminary to and preparatory to one’s receiving the Holy Ghost. The light of Christ will lead the honest soul who ‘hearkeneth to the voice’ to find the true gospel and the true Church and thereby receive the Holy Ghost (see D&C 84:46–48).”
I love these descriptions because they are so poetic. But because they are metaphysical, I have to work hard to understand what kind of impact they have in my day-to-day life. So let’s get physical then, at least when it comes to understanding light itself. I’m going to review some of the characteristics of light as I understand them in order to help us better understand how the metaphor of light works.
First, light is energy that exhibits characteristics of waves. Sometimes it is spoken of just in terms of the waves that we can see. But at other times, the term ”light” is used to refer to the entire field of spectroscopy, that is, all waves whether seen or not. For example, infrared “light” or heat and ultraviolet “light” that burns our skin when we spend too much time in the sun. It also includes x-rays, gamma rays and radio waves.
Reflection is one of the four major characteristics of light and I find it particularly fascinating and impactful for my understanding of light as a metaphor for Christ. Reflection means that when light hits something in its way it bounces off that object and takes off in another direction. If the surface is very smooth and flat, like the mirror in my bathroom, the reflection is near perfect. If it is smooth but warped, then the reflection of my body is misshapen and does not represent reality. Think of the curved mirrors at arcades which make you look thin or fat.
Probably one of the most interesting changes that happens at the moment of reflection is a function of the object’s ability and tendency to absorb some wavelengths and not others. When light hits a tomato, the tomato has the uncanny ability to absorb most of the waves except for the red ones. As it reflects the red waves and those waves make their way to the retina in my eyes, that’s what makes the tomato appear red to me. When the same light hits a Granny Smith apple, the red waves are absorbed, but the green ones are reflected and when they hit my retina, I see a green apple.
What I find interesting about all this is that the light itself is not something I experience or interact with directly. I cannot touch it. I cannot collect it in a bottle and put it on a shelf so that I can look at it and appreciate it. I cannot experience light as light itself. The primary way I experience light is indirectly, because of its impact on some other object. I experience light because of its interaction with something else. I experience light as it is reflected off other things in the world.
What I do with–how I understand–the reflected light is a function of my perceptors, of my ability to perceive the light and make sense of it. If I don’t open my eyes, or if they are diseased or do not function properly, then my perception is not accurate and and I am not able to fully understand or appreciate the reflecting object.
These same principles apply to the spectrum of light that I cannot see. When an object is hit by infrared light, its molecules speed up, its temperature increases, and if my perceptors are working, I feel the heat that is reflected off that object. When I stand in the hot sun, the air molecules around me speed up when they collide with the infrared light, which increases its temperature and as a consequence, I feel heat. The infrared lights also causes my skin to get hot, but what I am experiencing is the hot skin and not the infrared light directly.
We have figured out how to harness the power and influence of x-rays, by building machines that utilize them in order to see bones and organs. Those machines work by sending x-rays toward the bones or organs and then in turn perceiving the reflections of those x-rays in a way that helps us understand what is going on inside our bodies. The x-rays by themselves aren’t of much value to us, but we are able to learn what is going on when the light is reflected off the internal objects and is perceived by a device that can “see” the reflection.
The principle in force here is that to comprehend light and harness its usefulness in order to better understand the world, two things must happen: light must reflect off an object, and I must have a device that knows how to perceive those reflections.
Okay, so what does this have to do with the Light of Christ?
It makes a lot of sense to me to think of the Light of Christ as a spiritual energy that permeates the universe, interacting with all sorts of objects–mostly people–which happen to be in its path. I think it is safe to say that I do not experience the Light of Christ directly, but as it reflects off of other people. Similarly, I impact others when I reflect the Light of Christ towards them. This understanding gives heightened meaning to the scriptures “I have set thee to be a light” (Acts 13:47), “let your light so shine” (Matt 5:16), and “ye are a light unto this people” (3 Ne 15:12).
Because I act both as receiver of reflections from others and as reflector to others, I must ask myself some hard questions: How well do I receive the reflections from others? Are my perceptors always on and ready to receive what is being reflected? Do I put myself in a position where I can receive reflected light from others? Do I choose unwittingly or intentionally to not receive reflected light from various people? Do I perceive limited wavelengths of reflected light such that I only see green and completely miss the blues that are being reflected toward me? I must also ask: When that energy, or Light of Christ, touches me, how well do I reflect it back into the world? Is my surface so coarse that reflection is stunted and not optimal? Do I absorb everything for myself and not reflect it towards others? Or is it the case that I don’t absorb anything at all, such that the light goes right through me as if I weren’t there at all, and others do not have the benefit of my reflection?
Just as machines can be configured and tuned to reflect and perceive more precisely and accurately, so we can tune our internal reflectors and perceptors to be more targeted in our reflecting and to take in more of the reflections around us and better understand them. Nevertheless, things can and do go amiss.
My step-father died not long after I was released as bishop of Montgomery Ward. I was fortunate enough to be able to leave the morning after his death to be with my mom. When she asked me to speak at his funeral, I approached her request as I had as a bishop: reflect on the life of the deceased in such a way that we learn something that will help us become better people. I felt inspired while writing the talk at her house; it flowed so easily and quickly. When Nancy arrived a few days later and read it, she gave her nod of approval–which is sometimes hard to come by.
At the funeral service, some people perceived the talk to be as inspiring as I had intended, but others did not. What I did not anticipate was that for these others, my “reflection” would seem more like a church sermon–something they had been avoiding for years.They wanted to simply celebrate my step-father’s life through sharing stories and anecdotes, but my reflection asked them to do something that they were not prepared to do. And I was asking in a way that made them uncomfortable. I had been so focused on my reflection that I had not considered whether my listeners’ receptors would be prepared to perceive what I wanted them to. Seven years later at my mom’s funeral, I did more celebrating than sermonizing.
I think that the most egregious error we make in terms of reflecting and perceiving comes from convincing ourselves that our reflections are accurate and our perceptions are right. Because my reflections are accurate, when you don’t perceive them as intended and are not able to understand them, then there must be something wrong with your perceptions. Or because I am right when it comes to my perceptions, when your reflections do not impact me in a positive way or in a way that I understand, then there must be something wrong with your ability to reflect.
Most of us aren’t that arrogant, but we still sometimes find ourselves in a situation where what we thought were good reflections being directed towards others were not perceived as we intended. Sometimes it’s a case that our reflected yellows are perfect and exact, but the other’s perceptor is incapable of perceiving yellow–or has never had an experience with our kind of yellow and only knows how to treat it as foreign matter. Maybe because of my limited experience, my perceptor understands only one shade of white that matches my one concept of snow, and so I completely miss an Eskimo’s reflection of variations of white, which match the 50 or so variations of snow that he or she is sending to me.
So how do these principles hold up when we consider Christ as the Light and not just the disseminator of light? Let me put it another way: What do I learn about my relationship to and understanding of Christ when I consider Him as the Light of the World?
The older I get, the less and less I feel like I have a direct relationship with Christ–and that that is exactly what God and Christ intended. My primary interaction with and understanding of Him is indirect because it is only through other people. I have learned more and more about Christ and who He is through the people around me. My interactions with other people have caused me to adjust my perceptions in both subtle and significant ways. And I also have learned that the only way I can show my Love to Christ is through my interactions with and my reflections toward other people. I cannot put the Light of Christ in a bottle, place it on my shelf, and look it and feel like that is my personal relationship with Him. Just as the only way I can come to God the Father is indirectly, i.e. through Christ His son, the only way I can really come to Christ is indirectly, i.e. through other people.
There is nothing more important in this world than my relationships with other people because those people teach me about and bring me to Christ. Those relationships and interactions are so important, that I have to be mindful that every reflection off me is constructive and builds others in a productive manner. I also have to be attentive that I am perceiving the reflections off others in a manner that strengthens my relationship with them. Sometimes that requires that I give the reflector the benefit of the doubt, i.e. that the reflections were well intended even if they don’t initially appear that way. It also requires that I be infinitely adaptable to each situation because no two interactions, reflections and relationships are the same.
Because I’m still not very accomplished at this, let me close by sharing a blog entry I wrote that recounts a simple interaction that taught me about the kind of relationship I want to have with the Savior.
Nancy and I volunteer at the LDS Columbus Ohio Temple one Saturday a month. Yesterday I again noticed a man I have seen several times over the last couple of years. I would guess he is in his mid forties. He had a head of grey hair, and I imagined him the father of a busy family with a few teenagers in the mix. I have to say that I took notice of him because he always has had a simple and warm smile. Though I still don’t even know his name and have never had an extended conversation with him, a few words that come to mind to describe him are genuine, sincere, full of integrity, unassuming. You know the type.
Yesterday he was helping a man in a wheelchair whom I have not seen before. Because I was officiating the session, I asked the helper what I could do to help. In a very respectful manner, he said he wasn’t sure. He never was sure how much the man could actually do for himself or what help he would want or need. No rancor; no exasperation; just fact. His respectful answer told me that his wheelchair companion had an independent streak—but not a fierce one.
So I watched them attentively. It soon became apparent to me that these men were brothers, not only because I finally saw that they looked a lot alike, but because they knew each other as only brothers know each other. What became more and more of a blessing to observe was how they interacted with each other. First, there was never any outward negotiating. The helper brother was keenly and intuitively aware of what his brother was capable of doing in the moment. He displayed no expectation or surprise or frustration if what his brother was or was not capable of doing was different than the last time they interacted. In every instant, he let his brother lead and respected his brother’s desire and attempt to do what he needed to do by himself and then filled in at the precise moment when his brother had reached his limit. It didn’t matter that that limit changed in every interaction.
And after watching their interaction, it finally hit me how much love I was seeing and feeling in their interaction with each other. The helper brother knew that there were limits, even though he was never sure what they were at any given moment in time. But he recognized and served when they were manifest and when he was needed. He didn’t wait to be asked. And the helped brother also knew that he had limits, but he never let them define him or what he would or would not try and/or accomplish. And though independent, he was never too proud to accept the help of his brother. He didn’t have to ask.
No rancor. No frustration. No negotiation. No concealed expectations. No exasperation. No pride.
Only service. And lots of love.
May we all experience and reflect and perceive the Light of Christ in such a way is my prayer. May we Light the World with such love and service.