“Jesus spoke to them again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of
life.’” (John 8:12)
Jesus says this in the temple precincts during the feast of Succoth, or Tabernacles.
This was one of the three great pilgrim feasts (the other two: Passover and
Weeks, or Pentecost). Also known as Booths or Tents, Tabernacles was (and
still is) a weeklong feast commemorating God’s care for the Israelites during
their time of wandering in the wilderness, when they lived in tents. Since
this time in the desert was characterized by God’s leading them by a pillar
of fire by night, light figured in a big way in the temple festivities celebrating
this feast. Huge oil lamps were lit in the temple courtyards to remind Jews
of the Lord’s action of leading their ancestors through the darkness after
the exodus from Egypt.
So when Jesus announces in that setting, “I am the light of the world,” the
statement carries a profound meaning: Jesus of Nazareth is now the light
by which God leads—not just Israel but all who accept him as sent by the
Father. We can apply the Exodus background even more fully and say that Jesus
leads us on a new exodus, a new freedom march, to a new Promised Land.
The Fourth Evangelist loves that image of Jesus as light, and he uses it
throughout his Gospel. In the Prologue he proclaims that what came to be
in the eternal Word (that becomes flesh in Jesus) was life, and that life
was the light of the human race, and that that light shines in darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it. In the reflection following the encounter
with Nicodemus, the Evangelist speaks of that light as the environment of
a believer’s life (3:19-21). “But whoever lives in truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen and done in God” (v. 21). The same
idea is repeated in Jesus conversation with the disciples before he goes
to raise Lazarus. The theme is struck for the last time, again in the temple
area, at 12:35-36, 46. “Whoever sees me sees the one who sent me. I came
into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in me might not remain
in darkness.” (12:45-46)
Maybe the most illuminating reference of all occurs during the healing of
the man born blind in John 9, an episode still closely linked to the feast
of Tabernacles. Before he anoints the blind man’s eyes with mud mixed with
his saliva and sends him to wash in the waters of Siloam (a name that means
“The Sent One”), he says again, “I am the light of the world.” The symbolic
meaning of the healing of the man born blind could not be clearer. Relative
to the true “light of the world,” we are all born blind. Through baptism
in the water of The Sent One, Jesus, we come to “see” in the fullest possible
way. For John, faith in Jesus as the Christ is the deepest kind of seeing.
Following Jesus in faith, we are led through the darkness.