Many of us have a practice at nightfall of switching on a light or two to illumine the darkened places in our homes. Before Mr Edison, a carefully placed lantern pushed back the darkness until sunrise and provided some relief from a cold draft. Whether the source of light is a candle, glass lantern or LED lamp, we switch off the light or extinguish the lantern once the morning sun has risen. The lesser light yields to the greater light.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5)

Lighting our lanterns

Friedrich Nietzsche thought a lot about lanterns and lights. When he wasn’t feverishly scribbling works of philosophy, music, philology or science, he managed to produce several anthologies of poetry. One poem with the incongruous title, To a Friend of Light, is a warning to those who walk in the sunlight (that is, truth or objective reality) and trust in the sun’s power to provide light. For Nietzsche, the light of the sun poses a greater risk of blinding the seeker rather than enlightening his vision:

If you want to spare your eyes and your mind,
follow the sun from the shadows behind.

Rather than follow the light of the sun, Nietzsche prefers the obscurity of the shadows where individualism and subjectivism reside. Those who choose the light deceive themselves by the illusion that they can rely upon a constant sun in the midday sky, or a stable, universal truth. For Nietzsche, the sun is not only unreliable, it is beyond our reach. Transcendence is an illusion and serves only to frustrate us by its specious attraction.

Nietzsche’s solution? Remain in the shadows. Individualism, self-sufficiency and self-determined values define the noble man, where the will to power and creative expression of the authentic self is fully expressed. This is the more reliable way, to reject the sun (that makes the shadows possible!) and follow from the shadows behind. In another poem, Nietzsche displaces the sun altogether for a sun he alone creates: ‘I want more,’ he demands, ‘I am no seeker. I want to create my own sun for myself.’

Nietzsche’s noble man of the shadows is the master of his universe. He is self-reliant, self-made, and free from dependence upon a source of light outside himself. We can no longer rely on the sun to enlighten us. We must light our own lanterns. We must be the sole source of light so we can light the way for others.

The Dawn from on High

St Luke mentions the time of year but omits what time of day the Angel appeared to Our Lady at the Annunciation. Artists sometimes depict the Angel enveloped in light or even as a shaft of light (see Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation, 1898), but the only reference to light in this Gospel is a mysterious reference to the Holy Spirit. In response to Mary’s question, ‘How shall this be?’ the Angel responds, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, ‘and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow.’ (Luke 1:35). According to the Angel, the greater light will overcome the lesser light. Our Lady assents to the plan of God and we are forever changed.

In haste, Mary goes to the hill country and in the presence of Elizabeth and John, announces the greatness of the Lord. Mary has cause to rejoice! God has reversed the course of history through His lowly handmaid. She does not shrink into the shadows but stands in the refulgent light of a new dispensation. ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,’ Mary proclaims (Luke 1:46). Her soul captures the magnitude of God’s light and love and localises it. Her “yes” has wedded heaven to earth.

On hot summer days as kids, we used to hold a magnifying glass over a piece of paper or piece of wood until a wisp of smoke appeared, then a sudden spark. A tiny pinpoint of concentrated light created a chemical reaction and flames appeared where there was previously no light or heat. Mary’s soul magnifies the greatness of the Lord not because her light is greater than God, or that she wishes to create her own light. Mary's humility allows her to receive the greater gift of God’s light and make it available to her family, the little town of Nazareth and ultimately, the whole world.

The Annunication by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898)

Woman clothed with the sun

Our Lady is not afraid of the light. In fact, in the Book of Revelation, she is described as enrobed in light: ‘A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’ (Revelation 12:1). Mary, the New Eve, is bathed in the light of wisdom, understanding, and intelligence. This light is not of her own making or a flicker from her own insignificant lamp, it is the light of Christ who is the Light of the World. Moreover, her brilliance does not blind or obscure our vision; it clarifies, enlightens and ennobles us.

What does the Feast of the Annunciation say to us? In the Annunciation, Mary teaches us how to receive a gift. Another German philosopher, Josef Pieper, born a few years after Nietzsche's death, writes in Leisure, the Basis of Culture that the spiritual crisis of our society is not the usual suspects of consumerism or hedonism or addiction. It is our inability to accept a gift. The curse of the modern man or woman lies not in intellectual or even carnal weakness but the delusion that everything in life must be achieved. If we are like Nietzsche, we are no seekers. We strive with futility to create the sun for ourselves; to work for everything – career, achievement, financial security, recognition, and success.

By contrast, Mary’s trusting assent to the mysterious providence of God’s will mirrors directly the trusting relationship between God and man before the Fall. The first chapters of Genesis present us with a God who is so solicitous for His creatures that He anticipates their needs: arable, fertile land (Genesis 2:15); natural beauty (Genesis 2:18); companionship (Genesis 2:20-21); and freedom from shame (Genesis 2:25). Adam never asks for these things. The Lord, the Giver of all good things, knows what Adam and Eve need before they utter a word. When Adam and Eve take by force what had been given to them as a gift (Genesis 3:6), they fracture their trust in God’s providence and the divine image within themselves. They refuse to accept God’s gift and the toxic runoff from the garden follows: manipulation, control, possession and domination, coupled by a second wave of insecurity, isolation, loneliness and despair.

Mary’s yes restores our confidence in the greatness of the Lord. She teaches us to trust in God’s providential care and to not be afraid of the light. When our own harmful inclinations and sins drag us toward the shadows, we can be assured that the grace of Mary’s obedience has already gone before us. She meets us in our weakness and heals in us the fractured effects of the first fall and in the many falls that follow. ’She brightens the glens that were gloomy and softens the tribes that were wild,’ wrote GK Chesterton. Our Lady’s 'face was the sun of the ages’ and her ’soul shall be light to the last.’

In Mary, we learn that the lesser light always yields to the greater light, Jesus Christ.

The following sources contributed to this article:

The Poetry of Friedrich Nietzsche (ed. Grundlehner, 1986)

Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, etc. (Cohn, 1910)

Michael Naughton's notes on Pieper's Leisure, the Basis of Culture (University of St Thomas)

The Poetry of GK Chesterton (Deadtree Pub. Co., 2013)

This article originally appeared on the UDisciple website, a ministry of the Discipleship on Campus Team of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.