William Holman Hunt was an English painter who died in 1910. He was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite school of painters. His paintings are noted for their vivid color, great attention to detail, and elaborate symbolism. Hunt for a time considered himself to be an atheist. But at the age of 25 he had a reversion to the faith. And to mark the occasion he painted a work of art based on two scripture passages, 1st Revelation 3:20, where our Lord says to us, “Behold I stand at the door and Knock.” And 2nd from John’s Gospel 8:12, where the Lord tells us, “I am the light of the world.” Hunt combined these two passages into the painting entitled, “Light of the World.” You are probably familiar with one or another knock-off of this original work of art. In 1900 the painting toured the world; it was a very popular attraction. At the end of the tour, it was hung in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
This painting shows the large wooden door of a country cottage, which is located on the edge of a forest, far away from any other houses or town. Around the door weeds have grown up, ivy clings and drapes across the top of the door. The hinges are rusted. This door has not been opened in years. And the landscape is abandoned, uncultivated, and hostile. It is nighttime.
In the darkness, the full moon forms a halo around the head of Christ, who is standing in front of the door. He holds a lantern in his left hand, and with his right hand he is knocking on the door. William Hunt was part of the “Pre-Raphaelite” school of painters. This school of painting was interested in complex symbolism. Their paintings were filled with lots of symbolism.
In this painting, the cottage symbolizes the soul, the door is human freedom, and Christ is the light that brings hope and meaning to the darkness within. It’s a haunting painting.
First, it’s counterintuitive to have a stranger wandering the woods at night carrying a light. Usually in these types of paintings from that time the light would come from inside the place of residence and the wanderer would be seeking relief from the darkness outside. Another detail is even more eloquent; no doorknob or handle can be seen on the outside of the door. This implies that the door can only be opened from within, again human freedom. Christ is knocking on the outside, waiting patiently to bring his light and grace into the house, into the soul, but only those on the inside can let him in. Only we can let him in.
And that’s how it is in all our lives. God surrounds us with his good gifts, his grace. But he will never force his way into our hearts, he simply knocks, invites, and waits patiently for us to open the door.
And we prayed for this grace at the beginning of Mass in the collect, our opening prayer. As you recall we prayed to God, “May your grace at all times go before us and follow after us.” In other words, may we be surrounded by God’s grace at all times. But first we have to say yes and open that door. St. Therese of Lisieux was very good at recognizing grace. She knew of course that grace was to be found in all the sacraments, but she was able to recognize God’s grace in all the everyday occurrences of life. She once said, “Everything is a grace, everything is the direct effect of our Father’s love difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul’s miseries, her burdens, her needs, everything, because through them she learns humility, realized her weakness. Everything is a grace because everything is God’s gift.” Everything that happens in our life is an opportunity o grow closer to God, even a fall into sin gives us the chance to grow in repentance, humility and reliance on grace.
In the Gospel today we hear of our destiny, the great wedding banquet, Heaven. We have all received the invitation, and at our baptism we received our white wedding garment. And it’s God’s grace and our cooperation to that grace that keeps our wedding garment white. Our RSVP is a simple yes to God everyday of our life. Yes, to the graces around us and yes to the graces found in the sacraments.
St. Patrick of the 5th century composed a prayer asking for God’s grace and protection. It’s called the Breastplate, which is a protective armor against harm. He composed the prayer right before approaching the Irish king Leoghaire. This king was a fierce warrior and St. Patrick wanted to convert him and his people to Christianity. He was a little afraid, but courage is just fear that has said its prayers. So, he prayed, and I paraphrase, “Ok Jesus I opened the door of my soul to you, I need you all around me, I need your grace. A portion of St. Patrick’s prayer goes like this,
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise.
Reminding us of our opening prayer that God’s grace always goes before us and follows after.
We receive such grace in all the everyday occurrences of life, its showered upon us, it’s the grace we need for every moment of our lives. We also receive that grace in the sacraments: in Reconciliation where Christ forgives us; in the Eucharist where Christ comes to dwell within us. At Communion time we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” And you can say in your heart at that moment, “Lord, you have chosen me and called me. Give me the grace to answer that call, to say yes, to say yes every day of my life.” To keep opening that door to you.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley