The Light that Illumines All Men:
Saint Maximus the Confessor
Early Church Father
This excerpt from an inquiry addressed to Thalassius by Saint Masimus the Confessor (Quaest. 63: PG 90, 667-670) is used in the Roman Catholic Divine Office of Readings (liturgy of the hours) for Wednesday of the 28th week in ordinary time with the accompanying biblical reading taken from the prophet Zechariah 3:1-4:14. Here abbot Maximus comments on the famous phrase from the gospels “no one llights a lamp and puts it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
The lamp set upon the lamp stand is Jesus Christ, the true light from the Father, the light that enlightens every man who comes into the world. In taking our own flesh he has become, and is rightly called, a lamp, for he is the connatural wisdom and word of the Father. He is proclaimed in the Church of God in accordance with orthodox faith, and he is lifted up and resplendent among the nations through the lives of those who live virtuously in observance of the commandments. So he gives light to all in the house (that is, in this world), just as he himself, God the Word, says: No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.Clearly he is calling himself the lamp, he who was by nature God, and became flesh according to God’s saving purpose.
I think the great David understood this when he spoke of the Lord as a lamp, saying: For God delivers us from the darkness of ignorance and sin, and hence he is greeted as a lamp in Scripture.
Lamp-like indeed, he alone dispelled the gloom of ignorance and the darkness of evil and became the way of salvation for all men. Through virtue and knowledge, he leads to the Father those who are resolved to walk by him, who is the way of righteousness, in obedience to the divine commandments. He has designated holy Church the lamp stand, over which the word of God sheds light through preaching, and illumines with the rays of truth whoever is in this house which is the world, and fills the minds of all men with divine knowledge.
This word is most unwilling to be kept under a bushel; it wills to be set in a high place, upon the sublime beauty of the Church. For while the word was hidden under the bushel, that is, under the letter of the law, it deprived all men of eternal light. For then it could not give spiritual contemplation to men striving to strip themselves of a sensuality that is illusory, capable only of deceit, and able to perceive only decadent bodies like their own. But the word wills to be set upon a lamp stand, the Church, where rational worship is offered in the spirit, that it may enlighten all men. For the letter, when it is not spiritually understood, bears a carnal sense only, which restricts its expression and does not allow the real force of what is written to reach the hearer’s mind.
Let us, then, not light the lamp by contemplation and action, only to put it under a bushel – that lamp, I mean, which is the enlightening word of knowledge – lest we be condemned for restricting by the letter the incomprehensible power of wisdom. Rather let us place it upon the lamp stand of holy Church, on the heights of true contemplation, where it may kindle for all men the light of divine teaching.