Light that illumines all Men – Maximus the Confessor

Here Maximus the Confessor comments on the famous phrase from the gospels “no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house”  (Matthew 5:15 and Luke 8:16 and 11:33).  To fail to progress from the letter of Scripture to its spirit is to allow the light of divine revelation to remain hidden as under a basket.

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: Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. [Psalm 119:105]  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.

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.

Maximus the Confessor

St. Maximus the Confessor was born into a noble family of the imperial city of Constantinople in 580 AD. While serving as secretary to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, Maximus heard the call to the religious life and abandoned civil service to enter a monastery in Chrysopolis, opposite Constantinople where he eventually became abbot. St. Sophronius, a monk who later became patriarch of Jerusalem, had a great influence upon him through personal contact and perhaps his writings.

In the days of Maximus, the Christian Empire of Byzantium was divided by the Monophysite heresy, which refused to confess Jesus Christ as possessing two full natures, one human, the other divine. This had terrible political and military consequences for the Empire as well as sad consequences for the Church. All of Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia and parts of Syria were alienated from both the Catholic Church and the Empire which was its defender. There was therefore great political as well as authentically apostolic motivation to heal the schism and restore the empire’s unity.

One solution proposed was to agree that Jesus had two natures, but only one will. Maximus and many saw this as disguised Monophysitism, since a human will is an essential part of a complete human nature. The emperor, desiring peace at any cost, promoted this “one will” approach, called Monothelitism, and had it expressed in a document called the “Typos” which he urged all parties to sign. Maximus ardently and publicly opposed the Typos, writing and speaking eloquently in favor of the full humanity of Christ, and finding support in this from Rome where he lived for a while.

He ultimately returned to Constantinople to bear witness to the true faith of the Church in the full humanity and divinity of Christ. He and many of his companions were brought to trial in 662 and sentence to have their right hands chopped off and tongues cut out before being sent into lifetime exile where Maximus, weakened by his ordeal, died just a few month later. He is called “the Confessor” because he was tortured and imprisoned for his confession of the orthodox, Catholic faith in Christ, true God and true man.

 Besides his writings against the Monophysites and Monothelites, Maximus left us many works of spiritual and ascetical theology, especially his commentary on the Lord’s prayer and Psalm 59, that have been continually prized by the Eastern and Western Church alike. His “Mystagogia” helps us understand how the liturgy and sacraments were celebrated and understood in his time, and his mystical “Scholia” on Pseudo-Dionysius are still of great interest to scholars and monks. Because of the depth of his spiritual and doctrinal understanding, St. Maximus the Confessor is one of the few writers in the history of the Church who is also known as “the Theologian.”  (bio by Dr. Italy)