I FIRST ENCOUNTERED THE CONCEPT OF UNCREATED LIGHT reading a book on Christian aesthetics, in a discussion of how art affects the mind and the senses. I discovered the idea had its origins in Eastern Orthodox theology, in the understanding of the experience of the disciples in seeing Jesus’ transfiguration. What Peter, James, and John saw when Jesus was “transfigured before them”, and “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light” (Matthew 17:1-3), was not a heightening of natural light, but a shining out of divine, uncreated light, which Jesus possessed by virtue of his own divinity. The sight of disciples was transformed by the Spirit to enable them to see this light. The Orthodox theologian and monk Gregory Palamas (1296 – 1359) explains:
“This light, then, is the light of the Godhead, and it is uncreated. . . . . when Christ was transfigured He neither received anything different, nor was changed into anything different, but was revealed to His disciples as He was, opening their eyes and giving sight to the blind. Take note that eyes with natural vision are blind to that light. It is invisible, and those who behold it do so not simply with their bodily eyes, but with eyes transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Homily 34)
Only those who are “pure in heart” and enabled by God’s grace and initiative are able to see this uncreated light.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church a practice of prayer and contemplation was developed around this idea. I am not a deep enough student of either Orthodox prayer or theology to comment on this practice, but the insight concerning uncreated light struck me as deeply true, and (excuse the double entendre) deeply enlightening. “God is light” (1 John 1:5) is not merely a useful metaphor (though it certainly is that). No, our experience of created light, no matter how intense, is the barest inkling of the “unapproachable light” that is God’s dwelling (1 Timothy 6:16), the nature and place of his Being, his own House of Light.
JOHN, THE APOSTLE WHO DECLARES THAT “GOD IS LIGHT”, ALSO PROCLAIMS THAT “GOD IS LOVE” (1 John 4:8). The two go together. According to another Eastern Orthodox father Gregory Nazianzus (329 – 390), God is pelagius essentiae infinitae—the ocean of infinite essence, and we cannot directly know God’s essence. But if we cannot see all the way into the depths it is because God lives in light that is substantial, burning more fiercely than the fusion of any star, and whose fuel is unbounded and inexhaustible love. This too is not just metaphor or poetry. It is the reality of which all things created are an echo and an image.
Near the end of his vision in the book of Revelation, John one more time brings us to the Light, when he describes the Holy City within the New Creation: “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Revelation 21:22-23). And so, we will dwell in God’s house of light, forever.