April 14, 2017

Adjusting the Exposure


Text: Ephesians 5:11: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness,
but instead expose them.”

Yesterday the Saturday morning Lenten study considered the differences and similarities between icons and images, and particularly the images of stained glass.

Some of those differences are sort of obvious, if you think about it. Of course the first one we learn is that icons are part of the tradition of the Eastern Christian church, while the sorts of images we see in stained glass are more associated with Western Christian culture.

Then there’s the basic difference of materials. Icons are almost always painted on a wooden panel, while stained glass windows are made of, well, glass. The painting on stained glass is different—it’s glaze, painted on and then fired in a kiln. But both of them are still fashioned as visual works of art, and both of them typically depict stories from the bible or people from the history of the faith in specific and recognizable ways.

But after the obvious differences come the less obvious ones. Think for a minute about the differences in the way icons and images use light. Stained glass windows work because light comes through them. They’re pretty much designed with the sun in mind. But we see icons because they reflect light—just like a painting on canvas.

Often they reflect a great deal of light, because they are created with a great deal of bright colors, or even gold. They were made to be placed in churches, and often illuminated only with candlelight, so the use of bright and reflective colors had a real purpose.

But there’s a more subtle difference that we learned about in our study of icons. We know that as a matter of nature the color of icons comes from reflected light. But as a matter of theology—the ideas that the icon is meant to convey—the icon is understood to be a source of light. It’s almost as though it’s a tiny pinprick, a tiny little slit in the darkness of space that separates us here from the incomprehensible brilliance of God.

There’s one way in which this theological understanding of icons turns out to shape the way its made. It has to do with the way the eyes of the figures are painted. I’d never noticed it before, but now I’ll always look for it—those eyes never have that tiny little glint of white that painters in Western tradition always paint to show the reflection of light off the moisture of our eyes. It’s not there because for the icon painter, the image doesn’t reflect light; it sheds light. There is no reflection on the sun.

When Paul speaks to us, when Paul speaks to members of the church, he doesn’t use these ideas of darkness and light as adjectives. He doesn’t say of us that once we had some darkness about us, once we were a little bit in the shade, and now we are brighter. He speaks of us as the very expressions of these ideas. Once we were darkness. Now we are light.

I wonder whether you recognize yourself in that description. I suppose that most of us do not easily fall into that black-and-white, light-and-darkness divide. Most of us live our lives in the light, but we have a couple of places of shadow and shade that we find ourselves going back to every so often.

Paul seems not just to regard us as lights, but as searchlights. He seems to want us to go shedding the light that we are into every dark corner and crevasse of the lives of other people. The idea seems to be that we’d be doing them a favor. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as your grandmother used to say.

But that kind of light can be blinding. We might not be doing anybody any good with that strategy of being “helpful.” The sort of people who shed that kind of kind of light are probably the ones for whom that gentle compliment was invented—she spent her life helping others, and you could always tell the others by the anguished looks on their faces.

On the Sunday before Lent began Jeffrey took us up to the mountaintop and the transfiguration, and reminded us of the impact of the brightness of Christ revealed for who he really is in the midst of the thick fog of our lives. It’s completely bewildering. It can even be confusing. We’re not quite sure what to make of it. We are, quite literally, like a frightened animal paralyzed by the bright lights of the oncoming car. We don’t know where to move, or what to do. We want to escape, but we can’t.

If you’ve ever used even a moderately complicated camera, you know that photographers know how to adjust the amount of light that comes into the darkness. They can adjust the exposure of the light onto whatever it is recording the image by means of adjusting the aperture—the opening that defines the internal size of the lens—and by changing the amount of time the shutter is open.

We have good and bad ways of adjusting the amount of light God sheds into our dark places, too. The bad ways are the ways that make us give into our first reflexes, that instinct to shrink away from God when the warmth and brightness of that light comes in our lives.

Or it can be to throw shade on others, by talking them down to others or hiding our own faith from them.

But there are good ways to adjust the exposure, good ways for us to try to increase, bit by bit, the amount of light we let God shed into our dark places. And the best one is the one we begin with each time we gather to worship in Lent; it’s to make, in the best way we can, the most open and honest and fearless way we can, our confession. It’s to see those words not as an old familiar prayer, but as a new and helpful light, a light that—if we just let it shine into more places in our lives, will bring forth new growth, the best fruit we are capable of offering in our lives.

Monks and nuns understand confession in this way—not as a frightening experience of self-disclosure, but rather as an ongoing process of letting more and more of God’s light into our lives.

When Christ shines that sorts of light into our dark places, we have a reflexive tendency to want to run away, to duck for cover—to retreat into the shadows. Our tendency is to settle for our mixture of light and darkness. We are light enough. We have all of the brightness we can handle.

But that’s the way Christ heals our blindness, and restores our sight. That is the way our vision is made more accurate, and we can not just see, but be, the light God has made us to be. Amen.