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From the March/April, 2017 issue of Touchstone

 

The Light of the Cross by Anthony Esolen

Illuminations

The Light of the Cross

When Jesus took the chosen three to the top of Mount Tabor, he was transfigured before their eyes, and his raiment became dazzlingly white, purer than any fuller's soap could make it. Perhaps Jesus was what Milton called "dark with excess of bright," because Peter's first impulse is to contain the light, to house it. "Lord, it is good for us to be here," he says. "Let us erect three skenai," three structures with awnings, we might say, "one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elias." He didn't know what he was saying. Then a cloud from heaven overshadowed them, just as the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, and a voice came forth, saying, "This is my beloved Son; hear him." And when they came to, the apostles saw only Jesus, who commanded them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man should arise from the dead. They then wondered among themselves what Jesus meant by that.

The play of light and darkness upon the Mount of Transfiguration flashes back upon the history of the Jews and the immemorial early days of mankind, all the way to the darkness upon the face of the waters, when God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. It is also like a flash of sheet lightning in the distance, for an instant opening upon another mountain about to come, the bald skull of Golgotha. Darkness shall cover the land, and the earth shall tremble, tearing the hymen of the Temple in two, and graves shall give forth their dead, appearing to many.

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Can we say now that the darkness of that dread day is like the paste that Jesus made with the dust of the earth and his own spittle, pressing it into the eyes of the blind man and then commanding him to wash them in the pool of Siloam? It is bright with excess of dark. When Jesus cries, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" we know that Satan has not been kept at bay, a darkness waiting in the wings, a darkness suppressed. Christ enters into the heart of darkness, pierced with a lance. Light breaks forth from God when the sun falls, though I cannot tell whether even the blessed mother of Jesus could glimpse that light through her tears.

Sunset Changed to Sunrise

But upon us a light has shone, and Calvary itself glimmers with it, redeemed from darkness by the breaking of Easter yet to come. Hear the words of Clement of Alexandria:

Hail, O light! For in us, buried in darkness, shut up in the shadow of death, light has shone forth from heaven, purer than the sun, sweeter than life here below. That light is eternal life; and whatever partakes of it lives. But night fears the light, and hiding itself in terror, gives place to the day of the Lord. Sleepless light is now over all, and the west has given credence to the east. For this was the end of the new creation. For the Sun of Righteousness, who drives his chariot over all, pervades equally all humanity, like his Father, who makes his sun to rise on all men, and distils on them the dew of the truth. He has changed sunset to sunrise, and through the cross brought death to life; and having wrenched man from destruction, he has raised him to the skies, transplanting mortality into immortality and translating earth to heaven—he, the husbandman of God.

If Jesus has changed sunset to sunrise—and here we may remember that the Jews reckoned the new day from sunset—it is not just a brightening of the days such as they were, but their transfiguration through the inverse. It is to strike Death dead and glut the mouth of the grave with its carcass. It is to flint fire from the hard dead heart of man. The "day of the Lord" foretold by the prophets Joel and Malachi comes here with the terror of man risen up against God, and God raining upon them a light like dew, to soak the dry earth and bring it to life.

These extravagant words of St. Clement have been paraphrased and made into a fine English hymn for Passiontide:

Sunset to sunrise changes now,
For God doth make his world anew;
On the Redeemer's thorn-crowned brow
The wonders of that dawn we view.

E'en though the sun withholds his light,
Lo! a more heavenly lamp shines here,
And from the cross on Calvary's height
Gleams of eternity appear.

In the darkness of the world, a darkness that appears impenetrable to me when it comes padded and involuted in the glare of screens and neon tubes and headlines and bait for the eyes, we must turn to the cross if we are to see, in the gentleness of the true East, those gleams of eternity. Where else are we to find them? And maybe we must be made to walk the road to the Skull before we will turn our eyes to that new light.

Earth Transplanted to Heaven

The final verse reveals to us what we gain from the dawn:

Here in o'erwhelming final strife
The Lord of life hath victory;
And sin is slain, and death brings life,
And sons of earth hold heaven in fee.

In recent hymnals, editors will revise the last line to get rid of a reference that our contemporaries find hard to understand, but the image does come straight from Clement. We are the sons of earth, and earth is what we should inherit: six feet of it, over our dry, dead bones. But the Lord has not just caused the earth to bring forth life, as in Genesis. He has transplanted earth to heaven, and the new Adam, too, is transported to that realm of light, not, as once, to till the soil of Eden, but, if I may steal from Milton again, to reap "immortal fruits of joy and love." There are our one hundred and forty-four thousand acres, our eternal inheritance. •


Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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“The Light of the Cross” first appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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