At the start of Advent, the Gospel calls us to vigilance—to watch and be ready for the Lord of the house, awaiting his return. William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World offers us one image of what this arrival might look like. The Light of the World is deeply symbolic, showing Christ arriving at a door at night. It’s an allegory for Christ seeking entry at the door of the human heart. His way to the door is lit by a lantern, casting a soft light on the door to show that it is overgrown with plants; it has not been opened in a while. The plants also show that it is not only a late hour, but late in the year—they are dry, past harvest, and ready to crumble away as winter comes.
Hunt’s image softens any apprehension about the coming of the Lord, as he presents, through the choice of colors and in the representation itself, a warmth and gentleness that shows Christ’s deep love for us as the reason for his coming. A crowned and robed stately sovereign, Christ the King ventures into the darkness and the mess of brambles to seek entry into our hearts. This majestic King whose arrival would be expected to be announced by fanfare instead taps gently at the door to request entry. Our humble King seeks encounter instead of fanfare, our conversion instead of our confinement to darkness.
One of the boldest symbols of the image is the lantern Christ holds in his left hand, which shows Christ as the One that disperses the dark and illuminates the dead places within our hearts. A subtle detail is the fruit on the ground—a symbol of Original Sin, of our fall into the darkness of deception. Yet Christ does not leave us out in the darkness but comes for us, as our Light, into the dead of night.
Finally, a significant detail of the door is its lack of a handle or knob. This is Hunt’s way of showing that the door can only be opened from the inside, through our faithful response to Christ’s steadfast invitation. Watching and waiting for his coming calls us to attentiveness to encountering the Lord above all, even as this busy and frantic season gets underway.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.