the penultimate WORD
Series 2009 - April
Light of the world...
You’ve got to stay bright to be the light of the world.
Stephen Schwartz, in Godspell
Accolades are uncomfortable. As much as we might look for them, they are seldom tailor made and don’t fit well. Most enjoy the lime light but when it gets too close the ill-fit becomes more apparent. The sleeves are a bit long, or the waist is too tight. Alterations are predictable with praise taken off the rack. Since we seldom measure up to other’s praises we are more comfortable in giving praise than receiving it. It’s not that we are particularly self-effacing. Our modesty is just misplaced.
Reluctant to lavish one another with praise, and too vain to accept it, we reserve accolades for God. Our prayers inevitably compliment the source of our being and the author of our salvation with honorifics that make us clumsy. Jesus, for instance spoke to followers, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” The Fourth Evangelist placed no false modesty on his lips. The sentiment finds expression in our prayers as well as our praise.
But when Jesus affirms us our discomfort becomes apparent. “You are the light of the world,” he says. “A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words raises our heads and lowers our arms – and we begin to feel uncomfortable with the focus on us. That God is focused on us doesn’t help.
The confusion is found in what we think Jesus is saying about us. Let me explain.
We are not being affirmed as the flame of an oil lamp, smoking in a room overtaken by darkness. None of us is a candle flame dancing in a draft and requiring shelter as we move from place to place lest a gust extinguish us. No one is a flaming torch held high like a beacon punctuating the depth of darkness that overtakes us daily. We are light. We’re not the source of the light; we are the light. And that light cannot – should not – be contained. The lyric from the evangelical opera Godspell gives it expression: “But if that light is under a bushel, It’s lost something kind of crucial.” We cease to illumine.
Acolytes all, we bring illumination into the darkest recesses of this dark world. We are affirmed and commissioned as followers of the One who established a New Covenant on a darkened Friday afternoon outside the City Walls of Jerusalem and who presented Mary and John and Peter and the others with an Empty Tomb filled with hope. That hope we carry into each day’s series of incidental transactions. We are the only hope some people will ever see. Stephen Schwartz has it right in his lyric: “You’ve got to stay bright to be the light of the world!”
Our reluctance to wear Jesus’ appellation is conflicting. As we step onto the stage of life our vision is often distorted by our conceit. We perceive ourselves differently from how others see us. Others see what we awkwardly present and they sometimes applaud what they see. They often applaud what we allow them to see. Just the same, our perception of ourselves can be different, and often is. God in Christ however sees us as we are and that is what Matthew records for our reading. Every generation needs to hear it.
Confusion abounds when the Paschal fire is kindled. Some may – mistakenly – see themselves in the charcoal blazing in the darkness of a Nissan night with nothing but the full moon of Passover to guide us. As the Paschal Candle is ignited and lifted high, some may – mistakenly – see themselves in the raised column carried in procession into a darkened nave, an empty Tomb. As Vigil Candles are ignited filling Holy Space, some may – mistakenly – see themselves as stationary acolytes. But we are not the flame that scorches and burns. Light does neither; we illumine.
The caution is that “the tallest candlestick Ain’t much good without a wick.” We are not to aspire to what can be seen, but to recognize that ours in the task of illuminating the darkness, enabling others to see. “You’ve got to live right to be the light of the world!”
Our challenge is humbling as redeemed creation finds a voice of praise and thanksgiving. Baptismal Ministry rooted in our Easter experience has us bring illumination into the lives of others whose darkened lives are unfamiliar with love and the love of God; of forgiveness and the forgiveness of God; of acceptance in spite of failures and inherent brokenness. This might have been more effectively achieved had Jesus struck a different plan. But he didn’t.
We are the light of the world!
Copyright © 2009 James T. Irvine
Midi: You are the Light of the World from Godspell