Archive for January 12th, 2010

The Opacity of Sin

January 12, 2010

“And this is the condemnation: that the light has come into the world and men preferred darkness to the light for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

There is an opacity to sin: we do not see through it. Sin sheds light on nothing beyond itself. It refers only to itself and because of this it is darkness.

It is the nature of light to give beyond itself and what it illumines becomes light as well to a certain extent. Light always reaches out. Light is never turned inwards.

In the painting of icons – the use of “light” is extremely important. Generally, icons are painted beginning with darker colors, each successive color being lighter. The very last touches are themselves called “the light.” Often they are white (sometimes gold) and, to a degree, mark those places that are closest to the viewer. It is also of importance that shadow is usually not part of an icon. The exception to this is the darkness of figures such as the demons when they are portrayed at all. It is also of note that holy figures in icons are never portrayed in pure profile or with their faces turned completely away from the viewer. We may see them turned slightly, gazing on the Savior, but never in pure profile.

I am not an iconographer, but what little I have learned over the years has been instructive and the subject of frequent reflection. The use of light and the rules for its use are a representation of the holy life and the character of righteousness, as well as the character of sin.

I recall a conversation with a very iconographer once about materials. The traditional medium for a panel icon is egg-tempera. I asked about other materials, such as oil paint. I received an immediate response (almost of disgust). “No. It is opaque!”

Light cannot enter and pass back from such a medium – certainly not in a manner similar to that of egg tempera.

But my point in writing is not to think of icon-technique, but rather the opacity of sin. Reflection on icons is deeply important, for we ourselves are icons (images). Icons are not meant to be opaque.

The light of the glory of God is not given to us in order to “spotlight” us as though we were an antique on display. The light shines and illumines us by becoming both part of us and being reflected from within us. “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). The light that shines from us is not our own light, but the reflected glory of God. Neither are the works our works, but the works of God given to us by grace. Thus the light that shines from us reveals the glory of God, the author of all good things.

Light and grace shine on everything and everyone. Without the grace of God (which is His life) nothing would exist or live. The creation is not self-existent but is rather contingent. The opacity of sin is not a quality of the light which it receives, but rather the quality of its own existence, such that it is turned away from the light and has reference only to itself. The most common word used by the fathers for the “root” sin is philautia (“self-love”). Turned towards ourselves and our own contingent existence, the light of grace simply disappears within us. It is given and received (else we would cease to be) but it does not do as is intended. It does not lighten and reflect. It simply disappears within the self-sustained shadows of our own world.

This is the existential hades of human life. Traditinally, hades, or sheol, was understood to be a place where no sound was heard, though the silence was not the stillness of heaven. It is the voiceless void where no praise and thanksgiving are heard. It is not a silence that is fullness, but a silence that is emptiness. “In the grave who shall give you thanks?” (Psalm 6:5).

When Job speaks of Sheol he says:

I go to the place from which I shall not return,
To the land of darkness and the shadow of death,
A land as dark as darkness itself,
As the shadow of death, without any order,
Where even the light is like darkness.

However we are to understand Hades and Hell in a metaphysical sense, we can already understand them on an existential level – particularly in the imagery given us by Christ as the preference of darkness to light (because our deeds are evil). No light comes from evil deeds for they are not the works of grace. Rather, they are our own self-generated actions whose purpose is utterly self-referential. Brought into the light, they are revealed as lacking any true existence. They are opaque.

Repentance, in these terms, can be easily understood: it is a turning from darkness to light (metanoia). The cry of repentance is not, “I promise to do good deeds from now on,” but the cry, “Lord, have mercy!” For we have no good deeds of our own to perform. We have nothing self-referential that has the character of offering. Instead we say, “Thine own of thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all!” “Lord, have mercy!” is a cry for the light and a turning to the light. It is a renunciation of a self-referential existence and an embracing of true existence – one lived in and through the light.

And the light shines and the darkness does not overcome it. Though our evil deeds disappear in the clear light of God’s grace, we ourselves are saved (1 Cor. 3:15).

To live as the image of God is to live fully in the light of God – the opacity of our hearts transformed.

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).


…if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.


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