I grew up calling them lightning bugs. Somewhere along the line they became fireflies to me.
It doesn’t matter what you call them. At dusk, scores of tiny lanterns gently lit the backyard of my childhood home, each fading slowly on and off according to its own rhythm. A sea of twinkling lights would surrounded me, lift my heart’s heaviness, and still my racing mind.
Somehow those lights stirred in me a feeling of the deep goodness of the trees and the grass and the cicadas and even me despite the terrors that sometimes stalked my daytime. Anything seemed possible, even for a kid whose family was disintegrating, whose father alternated between charm and violence, and whose ramshackle house sat next to a junkyard.
At the time I suppose I knew that fireflies produced their own light. Nevertheless, I imagined that the light came from a source at once beyond and within them. Lightning bugs were lightning bugs when that something—when that someone—inhabited them and shined through them to illuminate my backyard.
Of course, science explains how fireflies glow in the dark. Their rear ends flicker as the result of a biological process called bioluminescence. But this scientific explanation does not preclude the use of our theological imaginations.
The Franciscan theologian Bonaventure, writing in the thirteenth century, reminded us that every creature came into being as a result of an expenditure of divine energy. So everything—rocks and salamanders and red giant stars—bear the Maker’s mark.
Bonaventure actually said that created things have vestiges or footprints of the Maker. But I invite you to think about this in a slightly different way.
Think about glow-in-the-dark toys. Unlike fireflies, glow-in-the-dark toys work by phosphorescence. In other words, they absorb light from another source. For reasons I do not understand they gradually emit that light over time.
So, returning to Bonaventure’s idea, we can say that every created thing gives off a sort of afterglow. A glow that points back to the Creator. However, this analogy breaks down in an important way.
Glow-in-the-dark toys stop glowing eventually. Balls or the plastic stars that you stick on your ceiling grow dim after a while. These things can sit in a drawer or a cabinet or a dark room for ages without coming into contact with a light. They’ll exist. They just won’t glow.
By contrast, time does not diminish the Creator’s glow within created things. That’s because God is actively sustaining everything that is at each instant. Unless God expends energy to keep something in existence, it collapses into nothingness.
Okay. Take a breath. I know that’s a little mind-blowing. Look at it this way. God created everything out of nothing. You’ve probably heard this before.
But God did not create the universe to walk away or to observe from a distance. God created everything that is in order to be in relationship. And God’s first thought in this whole creation business was none other than Jesus. God created everything for Jesus.
I know, I know. Lots of people will tell you that Jesus came along because of sin. They’ll say that God became a human to save us from Adam’s (and everybody else’s) sin. In other words, no sin no Jesus.
We Christians believe that Jesus redeems us by transforming us. And this is especially clear in the mysterious story usually called the Transfiguration. But before turning to that story, let’s say another word about Jesus and creation.
God’s purpose in the creation is intimate relationship. In the Incarnation, God becomes a human being and remains God. Jesus is both divine and human. One being. Two completely different natures. You can’t get any closer than that.
Jesus is unique. No other human being will be divine in this sense. However, the Eastern Orthodox use the term theosis or divinization. Pope John Paul II summarized the idea like this: “God passed into [humanity] so that [humanity] might pass over to God.” Or, to put it another way, because Jesus shares our humanity we can participate in the divine life.
Through the Incarnation, God makes humanity what it was always intended to be: the image of God. Or to echo Bonaventure: the afterglow of God. God the Holy Spirit thoroughly inhabits us and shines through us to illuminate the world.
That is our divinely intended destiny. It’s where, with God’s help, we are heading. We just haven’t arrived yet.
In the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John get a brief glimpse of journey’s end. They’ve taken a day trip with Jesus, and they’re praying on a mountaintop. Here’s how Luke describes what happens next: “The appearance of [Jesus’] face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white… They saw his glory.” (Luke 9:29b, 32b)
They see the divinity of Jesus shining through his humanity. And they see that Jesus’ identity is changing their and our humanity even now in a way that will be completed in the resurrection.
We are not to just wait around until the next life. Luke, along with Mark and Matthew, make this point clear by bracketing the story of the Transfiguration before and after with predictions of the Passion.
The Way of Jesus is the Way of dying to old ego-driven, self-centered ways. Dying to a life devoted to possessions, power, and prestige. Over time, we rise to a life in which God’s love increasingly shines through us to our neighbor.
We are most human when God’s energy—God’s love—pulses within us and radiates beyond us in compassion, in mercy, and in justice. I suppose that’s our purpose in this life: to be God’s healing afterglow on a wounded planet.