Monday, January 8, 2018

Illumined not Enlightened

On Monday mornings, I take my first look at the readings for the upcoming Sunday, and, if I'm preaching, I can usually tell what direction the sermon will go. This morning, however, when I turned to the propers for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, I didn't make it past the first half of the collect before I started scratching my head: "Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory..."

The website I use to read the lessons is, and they always post the contemporary form of the collect. Sometimes, when I get to the early service having not practiced the traditional form, I stumble on a word like inestimable, which has been replaced in the contemporary version with something like immeasurable. So, this morning, when I saw the word "illumined," I did a double-take. That seems like the sort of antiquated word that Thomas Cranmer would have used but that the editors of the 1979 BCP would have changed. I so rarely use illumined in a sentence. Isn't a word like enlightened more familiar? Doesn't it mean the same thing? Well, sort of but not really.

Before looking the words up, my sense was that enlightened, though based on a luminous referent (i.e. "light"), has a stronger tie to the spiritual, mental, or metaphorical sense of shedding light on something. In other words, enlightened has more to do with the immaterial than the physical. I supposed that illumined, although certainly applicable to mental or immaterial subjects, connoted a more literal, physical sense of light shining upon something. For example, one would normally not say, "I wish this dark path through the woods were more effectively enlightened," while a peculiar sort of person might say, "I wish this dark path through the woods were more effectively illumined." Sound right?

Then I went and looked the words up. It turns out that the oldest recorded English use of the word illumine, which came around 1340, meant "to enlighten spiritually; to convert; to inspire" (see the Oxford English Dictionary). The more common definitions in contemporary English, however, are as I expected: "to light up, shed light upon; to shine upon or into" or "to give light or sight to (the eyes)." As we would expect, the most common definition for the verb enlighten is "to give spiritual knowledge or insight to" and the OED notes that, when the word means "to remove dimness or blindness" it is chiefly figurative.

In this season after the Epiphany, we celebrate the light that has come into the world and pray that God would make us instruments of light. The rest of the collect for Sunday asks that we "may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth." But, in that same prayer, we acknowledge that the light comes to us (at least in part) from God's Word and Sacraments, which illumine--not enlighten--us. Why the difference? And here's my point.

The faithful disciple of Jesus Christ need not been fully enlightened in order to reflect the light of life to the world. All she needs is to have her life illumined by God's gifts of Word and Sacrament. That's where I am. As a student of the Bible, as an individual who has been baptized into the body of Christ, and as a regular recipient of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, I am having the truth of my life illumined bit by bit. There's still a long, long way to go. Were we to pray "...enlightened by your Word and Sacraments," we might give ourselves the impression that only when we have reached full understanding are we ready to shine the light of Christ to the world, and that's not true. To the extent that God's Word and Sacraments are shining light into our life, we have begun to glow. This is about the light of God peering unto the depths of our souls in a process of deep self-examination. We don't have to reach the mountain top in order to show others the light that has reached us. Today, I'm thankful for a peculiar word choice, and I pray that God would continue to shine God's light into my heart every day, bringing more and more from darkness into light.

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