By Fr. George Rutler

The search for true wisdom, an honest man

December 21, 2019
Column: From the Pastor

I have long been of the opinion that preachers should avoid allusions to the painting “The Light of the World” by William Holman Hunt. This is not because it is inferior in any way. It is a tour de force of an artist’s craft and a prime example of the Pre-Raphaelite school that he began around 1848 with John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, trying to revive the mystical aura they thought had become somewhat lost in the cold rationalism of the Renaissance. They were  a lively and amusing coterie. Father Neville of the Oratory was offended when Millais smoked a pipe in the presence of John Henry Newman as he painted his great portrait of the saint. But His Eminence did not mind at all and was eminently amused.

   My hesitation about Hunt’s painting of Christ knocking on a door is that it has become a cliché. It has been copied countless times, and like Leonardo’s Last Supper, it is seen so much that it is robbed of its force and even suffers the degradation of reproduction on coffee mugs and tea towels. Hunt’s painting has further been badly caricatured, as in the modern version by Warner Sallman, in a descent from cliché to kitsch. But clichés become clichés because of their innate truth, even if they are responsible for dreary platitudes from the pulpit.

   Hence, the Advent days make reference to Hunt’s painting unavoidable, for its symbolism puts on the painter’s canvas, with color and linseed oil, what the scribe’s ink wrote on parchment: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).

   At the risk of being tiresome, it needs to be pointed out that there is no exterior handle on the door, for it is the door of the human soul, which has to be opened from the inside. The door is covered with the thistles of sin. This is the moment when free will decides to open or shut. Free imagination assumes that the light Christ carries is seeping through cracks in the door’s rough wood, just as prophetic voices in Advent hint at a great Light about to shine  on the world.

   Over three centuries before the Incarnation, the Cynic philosopher Diogenes supposedly carried a  lamp through the streets, “looking for an honest man.” Since Christ is Wisdom itself, the lamp he carries in portraiture is not a searchlight. It is a reflection of the light of divinity that surrounds his divine head, for he is “the radiance of God’s glory” (Hebrews 1:3).

   On Christmas, the Church chants the words first uttered at Nicaea in Turkey by bishops who in many instances had been battered by darkened intellects: “Light from Light.” That is not a cliché.


Fr. George W. Rutler, S.T.D., is a brilliant scholar, author, convert, former pastor of Our Saviour in Midtown Manhattan, the closest Catholic parish near the site of 9-11, and now pastor of St Michael’s parish in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. A donation of any amount may be made to the parish at:

View Articles Father Rutler was ordained to the diaconate in Rome by His Eminence William Cardinal Baum in 1980 and received priestly ordination in St. Patrick's... MORE »

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