Photo of sunrise over the Sea of Galilee and meditation, from Alan Jesson
Great Father of glory, pure Father of light’
thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
all laud we would render: O help us to see
‘tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.
Now although I know that W. Chalmers Smith, the author of those words, took his inspiration from the first few verses of chapter 1 of I Timothy, I’ve always had a problem with that last verse of the hymn, and in particular the last line and the last half of the penultimate line of the verse.
I have felt for many years that it is not only the splendour of light that hides God from us. There is the matter of our own sinfulness –however you wish to define that. And then we have to reconcile Smith’s verse with the accounts where God is to be found in darkness: Isaiah 6, for example where the temple is filled with smoke, or Solomon’s prayer (2 Chronicles 6.1) “Lord you have chosen to live in clouds and darkness”. Is this metaphor, designed to show us that there is nowhere where God is not?
A closer reading of the context of the verses I’ve picked out show us that when Isaiah sees the temple filled with smoke, that smoke is shot through with fire, and when Solomon addresses his prayer to God he has just seen the temple filled with a cloud shining so dazzlingly with the light of God that priests cannot continue with the dedication of the temple.
So perhaps I am wrong, after all, in being so hung up over this verse in this hymn for so many years. Perhaps the ‘splendour of light’ is the sole barrier between us and God. And yet I am reminded that light is not always benign. The pure, focussed light of a laser can cut thick stainless steel; bore holes in diamonds; guide weapons; treat some forms of cancer; restore vision. We may assume that the Light of the World that Christ brings is benign, but is that a safe assumption?
Malachi 4.2 certainly suggests that Light will bring healing, but the previous chapter speaks of refining, ‘who will be able to endure the day when he comes?’ (Malachi 3.2) As our Advent season draws to its final days I like to reflect on something that the poet, counsellor and deaconess, Hilary McDowell wrote on that chapter:
An encounter with him [the living God] is neither bland nor superficial. He brings to the world a new order, prepared for a new kingdom, and will not share a place in our hearts with sin. Something has to go when we come face to face with a master whose nature is love and holiness and who cannot look on sin.
She goes on:
We must not walk towards Bethlehem with the ambition of cuddling the baby. The infant may be small but the shadow of the cross already falls across the manger. If this is to be our destination we must fear nothing, not even the refiner’s fire.
Hilary McDowell observes that there should be a sign over the manger, “Dynamite: Handle at your own risk”. It is, however, dynamite, fraught with joy and a cosmic, unmeasurable, unending love. O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.