Light and darkness are major themes in the Scriptures. This semester, I have been taking a course on the Johannine Literature at my University. It is my last biblical course before I receive my degree. Johannine writings include the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and the Book of Revelation. Particularly in the Gospel, but certainly developed elsewhere, the idea of the light entering into the darkness is prevalent. It begins with the famous Prologue to John’s Gospel: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5).
I had these words were particularly in my mind as I visited the Cathedral of Chartres on a recent trip to France. Chartres is famous for two things: its mismatched bell towers, one Romanesque and one Late French Gothic, and its well-known stained glass. I was most interested in this glass, which is purported to be the best in the world.
On a brisk French morning, I approached the Cathedreal of Chartres, which, because of the city that has grown up around it, cannot be fully appreciated from a distance. There was scaffolding on the façade of the entrance, and the day was a bit cloudy—not my idea of the best conditions for a visit that requires bright sun. The outside of the side portal to the Cathedral is decorated with a series of statues showing figures from the Old and the New Testaments. These figures line the portal to the Church, leading the faithful to enter deeply into the mysteries contained within, just as the Scriptures continue to do today.
Inside, Chartres is an enigma. The Cathedral is undergoing a long cleaning process. The walls are blackened with centuries of soot caused by incense, candles, and most egregiously, heating oil residue. Looking at the massive blackened walls with their strong vertical lines drawing the gaze of the faithful upwards—being lifted to God in contemplation—the contrast of the explosively colorful windows is striking. With three rows of windows, aided by the famous flying buttresses which allowed Gothic architecture to introduce large gaps (making room for windows) into the support structure of churches, and with three magnificent rose windows, Chartres is truly the cathedral of light.
This light, the ordinary light from the sun, is transformed by the careful workmanship of artisans who faithfully transferred their beliefs into glass—glass that tells the story of salvation and calls all people to conversion. But more than the story depicted by the windows, I was rather moved by the play on light and darkness caused by the shifting sun outside. As the clouds broke intermittently, one section of windows or another would burst into flames of color, sending streaks of light across the cathedral: “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.” (Jn 1:9). The light was shining in the sooty darkness, and it was inspirational.
The light that was coming into the world—caused by the sun—was transformed by the windows. This image brought to mind a number of beautiful truths about our faith. Jesus is often called the Sun of Justice, which refers to the light of justice and truth that Christ brought to Earth. The sun is often used as a metaphor for Christ. The light of the sun is in the world. We have done nothing to deserve it; it comes and it goes, shining first directly and then indirectly, reflected by the moon, often a metaphorical sign for Mary, who perfectly reflects the light of the Son. But this physical light in Chartres was transformed into a spiritual light—illuminating the faith. It was transformed by human actions—by human works—the works of artisans.
We all know that “faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2:26) and that works apart from faith are empty, meaningless, and non-salvific. For no one can earn their salvation without the grace of God. Before me in Chartres were works of men that transformed the light. The light was made to illuminate truth based on the faithful understanding of the artisans. Through the interpretations of these artists, the light was being transformed into the transmission of the faith. It was a pretty powerful metaphor for the Incarnation. The truth was illuminated in works, but faith was still required from the faithful who saw the fruits of their labors.
God was in the world before Jesus was incarnate. The Israelites were not without some personal experience of God; one need only look to Moses to see this. However, God was not in the world as a person. In the person of Jesus Christ, faith in God takes on a new color—a tri-personal color which reveals Him more perfectly. It is in the person of Christ that we have access to the Father: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” (Jn 14:6). But the only way we can come to Christ is through the mediation of the Church, which transmits revelation from generation to generation. If the Church had not preserved the Scriptures and the Tradition with which it has been entrusted, we would know nothing of Jesus Christ. True, the light would still be in the world, because no action of man can negate the action of God, but it is the particular form of revelation we have received—Scripture and Tradition—that focus the light and mould it into something understandable from generation to generation.
This is what I saw in Chartres: windows making the light of Christ accessible to new generations. The mediation of the Church is the artistry of the windows. The brightly burning sun is Christ, and the darkness of the stone church is the world. The light shines brightly in the windows, and the history of salvation and the promise of eternal life shines through the darkness of the world, bringing hope to all people.
My visit to Chartres was an incredible experience. The most beautiful thing is that I don’t need Chartres to have this experience. It has already been given to me in the Sacraments. And as often as I avail myself of their grace, I too experience the light of the world burning brightly in my soul.