Light and works


In today’s gospel readings, the image of light runs through all the readings. In the first reading, we hear:

“Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed” (Isaiah 58:7-8)

The responsorial Psalm (112) says the just man is a “light in darkness, “and then the Gospel has Jesus reminding his friends that they are the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world”:

“You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.” (Mt 5:14-16)

The first passage makes clear what our work as Christians in the world entails: in concrete ways, doing what we can to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and also to shelter those who are oppressed. These are some of the corporal works of mercy. We can think about how we do that in a number of different ways, from personal acts of care (bringing a meal to a neighbor in need) to joining forces with others to undertake corporate acts of care (donating food to a pantry, volunteering at one, or lobbying for legislation such as food stamp benefits to reduce hunger). Sheltering the oppressed can mean protesting and working for our country to be more welcoming to refugees. It could also be as simple as offering kindness to a person who is in need of gentleness of heart. Then, the passage says, “light will break forth like the dawn” and the just person will receive many good rewards, like the healing of their wounds.

There could be two ways to interpret these good rewards that happen to the person who undertakes these acts of care: one is to think about God rewarding the person, like a king or parent who judges and rewards good behavior. A second interpretation, though, fits the language of the passage better, for it says: “your light will break forth like the dawn.” Not God’s light apart from the person, but the person’s own light will become visible. In other words, something about our own true identity, an identity of self-in-God, becomes visible in acts of love and mercy. The presence of God within us— a God who is much bigger than any one of us, but who forms the deepest part of who we are as creatures made in God’s image and gifted with the Holy Spirit—only becomes visible in acts of love. Love makes visible light to others. Love makes visible our own loving nature to ourselves.

Jesus tells us not to keep our light hidden. He implies that there is a funny kind of temptation in life, which is to think less of ourselves than we really are. Jesus does not emphasize avoiding pride a sin, but rather he says there is a cost to keeping our loving nature hidden. I’m reminded of the song, “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Going to Let is Shine.” When my kids were small, they sang that song with tremendous exuberance in Sunday School classes. For the most part, their little voices did not hold back, in the way that children don’t hold back expressions of love, care, or kindness, even to strangers. A well cared for child has a natural impulse of their hearts is to love selflessly, and we as parents might have to teach them not to go up and to hug random strangers or pet every dog that they meet! Of course, doing so would not be safe. But Jesus suggests that there is a way that love can still be expressed with some of that childlike exuberance as adults: when we undertake acts of love, especially for those who are most marginalized in our world, our light becomes visible to them and to us. When we are in touch with our loving nature, the Christ who resides within us, we naturally want to share that light with one another through these acts of love.

These acts of mercy are what heal wounds: our own wounds and the wounds of the world around us. We witness many places where the world is in need of healing, but Jesus’ words are meant to encourage us, because as the author of John’s gospel reminds us, light always overcomes darkness, and not the other way around. Light and love are more powerful than darkness and fear, so we can let our light shine.