The light of the world
Jesus said: “You are the light of the world….Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
How should we take that instruction? On the face of it, it is quite shocking. Can I claim to be a light to the world? Is that not rather arrogant? But Jesus says we are lights in the world, and Jesus does not lie.
We could, of course, respond by saying, “Well if I am a light to the world, I must shine.” And shine with ostentatious good works, a big smile, lots of laughter and cheerful preaching. I think most of us would find that quite offensive. It is not our style here at Mirfield. We don’t want to show off, or seem to think we are important.
The great Jesuit Gerry Hughes told us once that when he was an 18 year old novice in 1942 he was given a book for his spiritual reflections and told to write on the front page: “I will be a saint, a great saint.” It is good for a novice to have ideals but he shouldn’t be led to believe he can make himself a saint. We become saints by looking at God not at ourselves. If we really do manage to become saints we won’t know it.
Yet, the problem remains: how do we shine as lights in the world without blowing our own trumpets or making extravagant claims about the virtue of our lives. The best way to find the answer to that question is to look at the lives of others who seem to have done it.
In the dark days of apartheid South Africa some of us used to visit the great sprawling Black area of Soweto. It was full of marvellous people and thriving churches. It was also full of murderers, rapists, thieves, and above all, angry young people who demanded change. South African troops patrolled in armoured trucks. Violence and bombings could break out at any point. And in the midst of all this was a house of the Little Sisters of Jesus, the followers of Charles de Foucould. Three sisters lived there quietly doing no church work, going out to menial jobs, praying before the blessed sacrament, and welcoming visitors into their little house. It was a place of warmth, peace and joy, and at the centre in front of the Sacrament was a wonderful carving of the baby Jesus, smiling, with his arms open in welcome. The anger and violence of Soweto stopped at their door. It really was a light shining in the darkness, very much like the Christmas card picture of the Stable shining in the night.
Less dramatically, those of us who live the Benedictine charism know that Benedict never calls us to do spectacular things. How do we shine as lights in a dark world? It is true that Benedictines have often built glorious churches and beautiful abbeys. They have offered magnificent liturgy and even done very fine scholarship, but none of this is actually in the Rule which Benedict wrote. Benedict asks us simply to listen to each other and through that to serve God. It is low key, but it changed the face of Europe and laid the foundation of the modern world.
At the other end of the spectrum of religious life it was the Jesuits who showed me the meaning of the phrase “Finding God in all things”. God is everywhere. If we want to shine as lights, we must shine with God’s light, not our own. And to find that light we need to find God. Where will we find him? Well, quite literally everywhere. In the past missionaries often spoke of taking God to heathen lands. Even today, you will hear of people wanting to take Christ into the inner city. But of course God was in the heathen lands long before we got there. And God is in the inner city. There is no place where God is not. Such a place cannot exist. God is in the most dreadful of places. He was present even in Auschwitz. Our challenge in any new place is to find where God is already working, and work with him; not presume to work instead of him.
We must keep reminding ourselves that God is already, there, in whatever place we go. How do we spot him? Well, all of us who have had the privilege of working with really poor people will know how quickly our own concept of doing good to them evaporates. How often I have been into a poor community in Africa or Romania and found myself overwhelmed by the joy, the courage, the faith, the kindness, the hospitality and the love of the people who live there. All those gifts are marks of the Holy Spirit. Here we find people shining as the light of the world, and they don’t know it.
So how do we shine? Dr Pusey, in his Rule said “The perfection of religious souls depends not so much on performing special religious actions as on performing extraordinarily well the ordinary exercises of every day.” Every one of us knows how hard it is to obey that first instruction of Benedict’s Rule. “Listen”. It’s not rocket science. The simplest of people can understand it, but we spend a life time trying to do it.
So where does that leave us? Well, Jesus says we are lights of the world. So that is what we are. We should be encouraged by that. We may not feel very full of light. We may not be mega stars in the firmament but we are lights in a dark and unbelieving world in which there is much sin. Let’s take courage from that.
Secondly, we must grow as lights. We do that by going on doing the simple things that we know all about. Christianity is very simple. Anyone can understand it. It is not easy to do but it is about simple things. We need to listen to the brothers and sisters around us, all the time. We must guard our tongues and our thoughts. We must do it day after day, year after year all the time. We go on with the same acts of devotion, the bible reading and prayer. Our modern world wants a slick answer to everything, a formula that just needs to be applied and everything will come right. Some forms of Christianity offer that – a neat formula, a set of instructions. But Christian growth is like the growth of trees, long slow and steady. As we stick at it the light of Christ in us will grow brighter and brighter, but we probably won’t see it.
And then of course there is the glass in that lamp. Is it dirty? The light of Christ will not shine out if the glass is dirtied by that sin ‘which clings so closely to us.’ Lent is only just around the corner. We need to think about how to get rid of that sin, maybe make that confession we have been putting off for so long. Christianity is a lovely religion because it is so simple. If we really want to shine in the world we just need to be like sunflowers, keep our faces turned towards the Sun and let his light reflect off us. If we do that, we will be so entranced with what we see we won’t be bothered about ourselves. And God will be glorified in us.