“I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me/ and what can be the use of it is more than I can see.” Robert Louis Stephenson
“Glory be to God for dappled things!” G.M. Hopkins
We are born creatures of light and darkness, on many levels. From the darkness of the womb, we are pushed into the startling instancy of light. We sleep and wake according to the pattern of day and night. We spend our lives in the rhythm of sunrise and sunset, the color that lingers as evening fades into darkness, and “rosy-fingered dawn” (Homer), streaks the sky of a new day. Darkness and light become metaphors for ignorance and truth, for evil and redemption, for hate and love, for grief and joy.
Shadow, the product of darkness and light, is a constant for us, and a necessity for establishing the dimensions of what we see. Shadow can function to obscure and deform, to bring drabness and dreariness, and then again, reveal in the shifts—or play– of light and darkness the changing shape of the world around us, ebbing softly into roundness, dividing sharply into angles and planes– a box, a pyramid– or rendering the folds and falls of a tablecloth or a garment. An artist relies on light and shadow to compose a painting, rendering portraits that seem to shine from within like Rembrandt’s, or the dramatic contrast of the chiaroscuro used by Caravaggio.
All over the earth, light and shadow play in an ever-varying drama. Our lives play out that way, too, and so did those of the apostles, in the shadows of fear and hopelessness transformed into light-bearers, as darkness turned to dawn in the garden for Mary of Magdala, as the fearful tightness of the Upper Room yielded to Peace and Joy. There was Thomas, in the shadow of doubt, invited into the wounds of Jesus and believing; there was the Risen Lord tending a charcoal fire, a jolt of shame for Peter the betrayer, now turned into an Easter breakfast of love and mercy in abundance. Peter’s shadow was transformed into healing power for people who sought to lie in his shadow and be cured. There was Stephen, standing in the shadow of certain death, his face glowing like an angel’s. And they are us.
I am musing about the inevitability of shadow. Even as we profess the glory of salvation in Christ Risen, we dwell in spaces of darkness. Set free from bonds of sin and death, we are not spared times of doubt and pain. Shadow seems part of being human. But we are graced—Christed–with this insight: shadows are impermanent. In and around us they dim and flare, flash and fade, stretch and shrink, shaping our own unique play of light and darkness. We know the weight and weariness of the world. But the light that dapples our journey is sure–a promise that will not fail us.
As with Peter and the flame-lit disciples, there is a sort of Divine burnishing going on with us. We develop a certain glow, and to our surprise, flicker as light for others. Christ illumines our common path on the journey of faith and love that the Eastern church calls “divinization.” Standing around the new fire this past Easter Vigil, we heard the Exultet: “Rejoice O earth in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your king!” and we saw how the candle flames moved over the faces of those gathered. In truth, we are together aglow, walking in the shining shadow of the Paschal Mystery.