“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father, who is in heaven.” [Matt 5:16]
Dear brethren of Jesus, children of the same Father, I greet you all with the peace of Christ, the love of our provident Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
The year gradually winds down and as such reminds us, just as the liturgical readings do, about the end of time and by extension about the four last things. The end of time should be a reality that never eludes us at every single breath since it is not something that can be changed or washed away by wishful thinking. It will be the future that turns into past; a definite aspect of our faith.
The peculiar aspect of the month of November, is the very first day, on which the Church rejoices over the hope that is not dimmed as in the celebration of all the Saints of God; the men and women who are heroes of the love for and faith in God in the different circumstances of their whole life.
The mention of ‘saints’ sends a shiver down the spine of the one who hears the word because of the overrated feeling of sainthood as being the exclusive preserve of a few or a status too high and difficult to attain. On the contrary, the saints were ordinary men and women who irrespective of their shortcomings, struggled with faith, depression, complacency that characterised their history at a point in time, but rose to the heights of holiness by allowing themselves to be led by God whose ultimate plan is for his creatures to be like him – “be holy for I the Lord your God, I am holy” [Lev 20:26]. This truth cannot be overemphasised especially in our world today.
In the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord makes known the constitution for the kingdom of God, a kingdom embodied in him which he extends to all peoples through his invitation. A convinced response will mean that one accepts the terms of Jesus and nothing to the contrary. To those who will be flagbearers of Christ, he says to them “Let your light so shine before men…” What does the Lord imply by this injunction? Taking a deeper reflection on these words, the meaning for us are twofold:
i. “Let your Light so shine…”
The first interpretation suggests that the light’s brightness be improved upon. The theme of a dim light is a possibility, but it cannot fit into the scheme of Jesus’ definition of the kingdom. To dim the light will be as a matter of complacency, timidity, unhealthy negotiations, mediocrity. The emphasis from this possible interpretation bothers on ‘efforts’ invested in the venture of illuminating the world. As coal burns fast and brightly when fanned, so also, the effort we exert into ‘fanning’ our lights, accounts for its brightness or dim nature. This is not premised firmly on the number of persons affected by it, rather the depth of impression made on the individual(s). God wants us to make efforts; in the Scriptures we find it clearly how God will not be pleased with one who makes no effort at all. In the parable of the Talents [Matt 25:14-30], the first two servants put in some efforts to trade well with their talents. Yes the results were different but they were commended for trying. The last servant made no effort at all to invest the talent and that was the reason for his excoriation.
But you may say, what if the light reaches the highest level of its brightness, how much efforts can be put in to make it glow since it cannot glimmer more than its limit? Yes, that is a point and this is where continuous efforts pay off. To keep making efforts is the goal as Paul will say “let us not grow weary of doing what is good for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” [Gal 6:9]. The efforts invested will definitely sustain the brightness at that high level such that it shines on and nothing less. To drop in effort will be to reduce the burning frequency. However, since we are not ‘perfect’ beings, our efforts cannot be ‘complete’ in that sense and only the perfect one [God himself] will be the sole arbiter.
ii. “Let your light so shine…”
Another interpretation of this phrase by the Lord, could suggest and rightly so, that disciples do not conceal the light. The light should not be hidden, for “men do not light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a lamp stand and it gives light to all in the house” [Cf. Mat 5:15]. The light is not meant to shine for ourselves, but to illuminate others. To conceal the light is a result of fear; fear that grips so tightly to make its host its own prisoner. To conceal the light is a deliberate choice to allow the darkness of evil, the dangers of a wrong path, the sadness of heart, pain and wailing, to dominate the God given good world. It is to take a towering stance against Jesus: “for the light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” [Jn 1:5]. This light which darkness dares to contend with is Jesus who says “I am the light of the world” [Jn 8:12]. To say that the light has to be conspicuous [in Jesus’ context] is not to be ashamed as Christians and to make bold a confession that resonates to the bounds of the world.
The two explanations from the text of sacred Scripture, find concrete realisation in the lives of the Saints. They at some point declared their love for God and allowed him to be the focus and locus of their being. Like the second interpretation, they make bold claims to be for Jesus, carrying the light through the different cultures of their times be it secularist or atheistic, they were not fearful to set it on the hilltop.
Like the first exposition, we see that whenever we read the lives of the saints, we can be confronted by the realities of imperfection and sin, yet they ultimately achieved holiness because of their efforts to illumine the world. They shine through union with Christ [“for anyone who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” Jn 8:12]; they shine in good works [see Matt 25:31-46]; they shine in noble motives [see Deut 6:4; Matt 22:37-40]. The saints did not live in a world outside of this planet neither they did meet a ‘more original version’ of Jesus. They made the efforts not to let the light of truth, justice and love be concealed or dimmed. These are the ordinary things which the saints did with great fervour.
The big question before us which is also worrisome is why do we dread being a saint? Is it a status too lofty to attain? Or is it the fear of being mocked as a saint in the making? Or a dyed-in-wool attitude of secularism and materialism that estranges the thoughts of sainthood? In this situation of our world and nation today, we need the mind and actions of the saints as remedy to the state of affairs. Love for God and Goodwill for a human being because he/she is a ‘human being’ – [body and soul], a sacred specie that must be revered and respected, are virtues that must be propelled.
There are magnanimous stories of unbreakable effort and determination, stories of those who faced suffering and death with courage and hope, but they simply are not mere memories, they are rather our witnesses. The author of the letter to the Hebrews puts it thus: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” [Hebrews 12:1]. These are heroes whose lives spur us on so that we can be like them. But more than that, they can also help us. Just as Elijah gave a portion of his spirit to his successor Elisha, so these “witnesses” can still give a portion of their spirit to us who now run our own race.
I encourage you with the words of Jose Maria Escriva “a Saint is a sinner who keeps trying.” Look to the saints who let their light so shine and you will be encouraged to be a saint. Who are some of your heroes? Who has been motivating you? Let them be your supporting witnesses and help you live with inspired integrity. You can begin from learning something about your Patron Saint, this is definitely a noble course. Take the words of the Danish Philosopher and existentialist, Soren Kierkegaard, as a fact, when he says “God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.” You too can be a Saint now, just let your light so shine before men, let them see your good works and the praise redounds to God almighty.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ continue to abide with us all. Amen
† Alfred Adewale Martins
Archbishop of Lagos
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