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Caroline on the Stairs (Woman Ascending to the Light) by Caspar David Friedrich
The Newborn Child by Georges de La Tour
Young Christ by Elisabeth Coester

Caspar David Friedrich

Caroline on the Stairs (Woman Ascending to the Light), c.1825, Oil on canvas, 73.5 x 51.5 cm, Pommersches Landesmuseum, Germany, Pommersches Landesmuseum, Germany / Bridgeman Images

Georges de La Tour

The Newborn Child, c.1645, Oil on canvas, 76.7 x 92.5 cm, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France, Photo: Louis Deschamps © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Elisabeth Coester

Young Christ, 1939, Stained glass, Whole window approx. 22 x 8 m, St Nikolai, Hamburg, Photo: © Hinrich Franck, courtesy of St Nikolai, Hamburg

Living in the Light

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

It is not easy to picture the addressees of the letter to the Ephesians. Who were they and what were the characteristics of their community? The letter (or sermon) paints an overwhelming picture. This group of early Christians is nothing less than an eschatological ‘household of God’ (Ephesians 2:19); ‘a holy temple of the Lord’ (Ephesians 2:21) right here on earth—whether in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus or some other comparable place in the Graeco-Roman world. Their mundane reality, though, probably looked more humble—more like an African-American storefront church than an established mainline one. The Christians in Ephesus were a tiny minority that called its new members from the fringes of society: outcasts and pariahs.

The letter to the Ephesians tries to reconcile this striking discrepancy with the help of a central symbol of early Christianity: the light. It marks the new existence Christians enter when they start to believe in the risen Jesus Christ. They leave the night of death, despair, and sin; they come into the day of life, hope, and righteousness. Resurrection for them is thus not a remote incident in the history of salvation—or just a miracle that only happened to Jesus of Nazareth. On the contrary, it has become the inner nature of their existence. As believers, they themselves have become ‘light in the Lord’ (Ephesians 5:8). In this they follow their saviour who called himself ‘the light of the world’ (John 12:46). This light shines into the world, but the world cannot comprehend it (see John 1:5). So, the first Christians were living in two realities—the pagan world of the Roman Empire where they were strangers and the inner world of the church to which they belonged as citizens. The essential thing was their inner transformation. This became manifest for them particularly in moments of prophetic ecstasy, glossolalia, rapture, and other forms of pious enthusiasm.

But are there not also other ways to live in the light of faith: more quiet and inward; less dramatic? That is what makes George de la Tour’s image of the newborn child and Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of his wife as she is climbing up the stairs of their house so appealing: faith as an integral part of one’s inner and one’s everyday life—an essential characteristic of personality, and a dynamic that shapes the deepest interpersonal bonds.

It is noticeable that the letter to the Ephesians doesn’t lose itself in the contemplation of spectacular spiritual illuminations but stresses the ethical implications of ‘the light’. Christian enthusiasm has nothing to do with intoxication or shameful behaviour but shines in a way that is good. This goodness can be seen in the acts Christians do (5:9). The beauty can be heard in the songs Christians sing (5:19–20). So being ‘light in the Lord’ is at the same time spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic. Receiving this grace has serious consequences. The symbol of salvation thus becomes a moral maxim: ‘Walk as children of light!’ (5:8).

What follows may seem like a catalogue of laws and prohibitions but it is in service of a symbolic orientation: if you want to live as a Christian then ask yourself whether your thoughts, feelings, words, and actions are transparent and can stand the light of day. So, the Christian test of conscience is a specific form of enlightenment: expose the works of darkness; lead a visible life that does not have to be afraid of being shamed (5:11–14). In the context of the Ephesians congregation that meant to lead a life of sexual responsibility or conjugal faithfulness, and not to take part in any form of idolatry and pagan cult (e.g. 5:3–5, 17–18).

Becoming a Christian thus marks the start of a new life—as a child of light. In de la Tour’s painting, the two grown women become such ‘children of light’ as they are inspired by the purity of a newborn child, standing in his light.

Anyone who tries to live like this follows Jesus Christ, who as ‘light of the world’ came among us as a child. This following, this faith, is the source of a shining, transparent, and honourable mode of life.

And it has consequences that go far beyond the personal arena. If this ‘child of light’, as depicted in Elisabeth Coester’s stained glass window, stands in opposition to the tyrants of this world, then Christians who follow him have the same duty to resist oppression, injustice, and violence.

 

References

Weizsäcker, Carl. 1894. The Apostolic Age of the Christian Church, 2 vols, trans. by James Millar (London: Williams and Norgate)