Michelle Francl-Donnay

Michelle Francl-Donnay

What came to be
through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:3b-5

“And by light you mean photons, right?” asks the student in the first row. “Yes, I do.” At least in this context. There is always a bit of irony in these last classes of the semester. I’m lecturing about light as the winter darkness grows deeper. Or maybe not.

As I packed up to return to my office, the lines from the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel ran through my head, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Chemists see light as active. It doesn’t just illuminate, driving away the darkness, it can fundamentally change what it touches. One molecule becomes another. Yet more wonderfully, once the light has soaked in, it can shine forth again, in new ways and new directions.

The Light has shone in the darkness, and we are fundamentally changed. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God. What’s more, we are called to be beacons of light: You are the light of the world.

We have been kindled, we hear in St. Matthew’s Gospel, not to be hidden under a bowl, or within the walls of our parish churches, but to shine forth, banishing the darkness around us.

Reflecting on these lines from John in his “City of God,” St. Augustine tells of St. Simplician, a late fourth century bishop of Milan, who recalled a pagan scholar once told him that the opening lines to John’s Gospel “should be written in letters of gold and hung up in all the churches in the most conspicuous place.” This is where our faith begins. In the darkness, yearning for light, life and God to come among us.

As Advent moves more deeply into the darkness, I imagine John’s words, written in letters of gold, shimmering on the walls of churches everywhere. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory … full of grace and truth.

I look for the Light dwelling among us, praying that it might change me; that I, too, might be aflame with the Word, filled with grace.


To listen:

American composer Morten Lauridsen’s setting of the traditional hymn for the feast of the Transfiguration, “O nata lux. O light born of Light.”

Latin text:
O nata lux de lumine,
Jesu redemptor saeculi,
Dignare clemens supplicum
Laudes precesque sumere.
Qui carne quondam contegi
Dignatus es pro perditis,
Nos membra confer effici
Tui beati corporis.

English translation:
O Light born of Light,
Jesus, redeemer of the world,
with loving-kindness deign to receive
suppliant praise and prayer.
Thou who once deigned to be clothed in flesh
for the sake of the lost,
grant us to be members
of thy blessed body.

To read:

The Prologue to the Gospel of John

To pray:

O God, most high and most near,
you send glad tidings to the lowly,
you hide not your face from the poor;
those who dwell in darkness you call into the light.
Take away our blindness,
remove the hardness of our hearts,
and form us into a humble people,
that, at the advent of your Son, we may recognize him in our midst
and find joy in his saving presence.

We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose day draws near:
your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and regins with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever. Amen.

— A Collect prayer for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B


Michelle Francl-Donnay is a parishioner at Our Mother of Good Counsel in Bryn Mawr, a professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College and an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory.