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Psalm 111

The Light of God

Light is a rich symbol for Christian thought, and Epiphany is traditionally a season of light (‘epiphany’ means to show or reveal, celebrating the appearance of Christ as new-born king). Light is necessary for sight. In one sense all we see is light, for apart from light nothing is visible. Yet in another sense we see everything but light, because ‘pure’ light cannot be abstracted and viewed apart from the things light illuminates. Christians throughout history have recognized in this dual quality of our experience of light an analogy with God’s creative presence in all things: for apart from God’s creative and redemptive activity nothing would be there for us to encounter (not to mention neither would we ourselves be there), so in a sense we can see God in all things as creator while not ever really seeing God pure and distinct. God is the light by which all things exist and appear, so the luminosity of all of creation is God’s plenitude refracting into the multiple colors and forms around us, and yet nothing created is God. So, all we see is God(’s), and yet we see everything but God.

The appearance of the three magi of epiphany signals a shift: their journey and visitation marks the genuine appearance of God himself in our midst. God’s light, since the beginning of creation, has been refracted and dispersed among all the beautiful things of the cosmos so that God illumines all but is seen—truly seen—in none. In Christ, the refracted light is gathered back into its single radiant source, the only proper unity/unifier and ruler of creation: God himself become human.

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Aren’t these reflections on light, Christ, and epiphany far removed from Psalm 111? In some ways, yes, for the psalm says nothing of Christ and is not even prophetic in nature. And yet something analogous is happening in this psalm, mirroring the insight above about the revealing light of the incarnation.

First, this psalm structurally captures a gathering movement, recalling (or more accurately foreshadowing) Christ’s gathering of God’s creative light into his own reconciliatory mission. It does so in two ways: first, in Hebrew it is an acrostic, each line beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. In this way the psalm has a comprehensive character, gathering the whole stretch of human language into the task of expressing the one divine life. Second, the psalm renarrates Israel’s history from the exodus (vv. 2–4), to manna in the desert (v. 5a), to receiving the covenant (vv. 5b, 7), and into the promised land (vv. 6, 8–10). In this way the psalm re-members, gathers together the various pieces of Israel’s past, and unites them together as the work and promise of their one God.

Psalm 111, then, clearly is a worshipful effort to perceive the manifold presence of God in all of God’s creation (v. 2) and yet to bring the manifold into focus in order to live rightly and faithfully in the present. While the original “present” was most likely in post-exilic Israel, this psalm is recorded for the ongoing worship of God’s people—including God’s people today in the Church. And for the Church there is one irreplaceable figure in whom the whole of human language and history is gathered for reconciliation: Jesus Christ. Consequently, when the Church reads (or sings) Psalm 111, we sing it to no other Lord than Christ himself and see in it the story of no one other than Christ and his people. The whole of history is illuminated and gathered together in the radiance of one king—and no other—Jesus the light of the world. In him God has “sent redemption to his people” (v. 9), and in him the whole of Israel’s history (vv. 2–6) is gathered and offered to all nations for the restoration of all creation.

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The good news is that the one in whom we live, move, and have our being (Acts 17:28), the one by whose light we see all things (Psalm 36:9), is luminously present and truly visible in human form, human language, and human history. The good news is that the one who made all things visible but was not visible alone is now made clear and visible to all.

Christ is Lord! Praise the Lord!