In the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games the flame is extinguished. The flame, a symbol of knowledge, spirit and life had been clearly demonstrated in the outstanding achievements of the competing athletes.
In the familiar hymn ‘O Thou who camest from above the pure celestial fire to impart’, Charles Wesley declares is ‘inextinguishable’. It is ‘the flame of sacred love’ lit by God in the heart of many since the day of Pentecost. This ‘holy fire’ of God’s Spirit was promised by Jesus as the ‘divine light’ that would fill, empower and guide them throughout their life after his departure.
Throughout scripture fire and light are symbols of the Divine. They have a universal significance, being used in other religions. The opening verses of the Bible include the command ‘Let there be light’; and with that the birth of the sacramental universe in which we live began; this beginning the scientists call The Big Bang. Light takes on a personal incandescence in Moses whose face shone after his communion with God on Mount Sinai; it continues as a pillar of fire symbolic of God’s presence leading him across the desert. Later its significance reappears in Isaiah’s vision as God commissions Israel to be a light to lighten other nations (the Gentiles).
Declaring himself to be the ‘Light of the world’ it saddened Jesus that Israel’s leaders had failed to be the bearers of God’s light, but had become exclusive, governing by the letter of the law, not the spirit of love. Addressing his audience he reminded them of their real purpose, saying ‘You are the light of the world’, ‘let your light shine’ so that ‘by your good works’ others may see the difference God makes. By believing in him they could become ‘children of light’. Living and intimately sharing life with Christ, John, in his first letter, talks of ‘walking and living’ in the light of love. Paul urges his readers in Rome to put on the ‘armour’ of light; those in Ephesus and Thessalonica were to live as children of the light, and he calle those in Phillipi to ‘shine like stars’. All the references indicate the way we are to live.
As Christians we are not called to be ‘the light of the church’, but ‘the light of the world’. Pierre de Chardin a catholic priest expresses his deep insight into this in his writing, ‘We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience’; implying there is something of God’s light in us and consequently in all creation. Wesley’s hymn, which in reality is a prayer request, describes this light as ‘a flame of sacred love’; giving us a clue as to how the light is manifest in us – it lights up our life.
My understanding is his light shines through us in the following ways: (1) when we engage in doing good works, however small, offering help to someone in need, treating others with kindness. (2) When we speak the truth by sharing any knowledge or wisdom we have learned. (3) When we are prepared to love others, especially the poor, expressing our compassion, being generous in whatever way we can. (4) By doing what is right, acting justly, speaking out against injustice, treating each person, regardless of colour, with respect and dignity. (5) By respecting all life and creation as sacred.
I clearly remember and am indebted to some, both present and past, in whose life and by whose character, actions and love, the light of Christ has shone on me providing encouragement, acceptance, understanding and guidance. Their radiance and love light was like a beacon when life was confusing, bewildering, misguided and difficult – especially in my formative years. This inner light has transformed people into luminaries and saints whose lives and witness may have aroused opposition among some, but who have changed society by abolishing social evils, establishing hospitals, schools, institutions and organizations of relief, rehabilitation and restoration for many in need of assistance.
We can’t generate this light, it is God given, but like Israel’s leaders, we can forget we are to be the light. Jesus said ‘You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world’ (Mt.5:15 TM) The words of a hymn are our daily reminder; ‘Jesus bids us shine with a pure, clear light, Like a little candle burning in the night, In this world of darkness so we must shine, You in your small corner and I in mine’.