Once upon a time there was a weekly meeting of the angels up in heaven—but not just any angels; this regular meeting was of the angels serving on the Angelic Nominating Committee for Special Gifts, Rewards, and Honors. It was the job of this committee, which met every Wednesday afternoon from 3 to 5, to consider which humans on earth, if any, were deserving of special gifts from God, above and beyond the ordinary blessings He bestowed every day. Each week the committee would select one name and submit it to God for final approval. This partic-ular Wednesday, after much discussion, the angels nominated a certain woman, and after sending the name upstairs, they received a memo back from God which said, “Approved, but ask her first.” The angels sent a subcommittee of their members down to earth, who appeared to the woman and said in perfect unison (since that’s the way the angels always speak), “You have been found worthy of a special gift from God—the gift of healing; whomever you touch with your hands will be healed of every illness or disease.” To the great surprise of the angels, the woman responded, “That’s very kind of you, and I’m sure this gift is greatly needed on earth, but I respectfully decline. Perhaps someone else would like it.” The angelic subcommittee quickly conferred among themselves, and decided to make a different offer. “You have been found worthy,” they said in perfect unison, “of a special gift from God—the gift of conversion of hearts. Whenever you speak, people will be inspired to change their lives for the better.” The woman responded, “I appreciate your kindness, and I’m sure that gift is very valuable, but I decline; there’s surely someone else who’d accept it.” The angels were surprised and even a little annoyed, so they conferred among themselves, and then came back with a new offer. “You have been found worthy,” they said in unison, “of a special gift from God—the gift of great virtue. When people see your good deeds and example, they will be encouraged and inspired to live holy lives.” However, the woman once again graciously declined to accept the gift.
By now, the angels were close to grumbling among themselves—but then they remembered that God had said “Ask her first.” So they said to the woman, “If you don’t want the gift of a healing touch, or the conversion of hearts, or great virtue, what gift do you want?” The woman, who had long thought about this question, answered immediately: “I want the gift of doing good without knowing it.” The angels conferred again, this time very happily, for this unforeseen request presented them with a challenge, and angels always love a challenge. They finally came up with a solution: they made the woman’s shadow a source of goodness. As she went through her daily routine, the angels explained, anyone touched by her shadow would have an experience of grace, but without her knowing it. The woman happily accepted this offer, and so it came to be. If she walked by a sullen child, he instantly became happy; if she stood next to a depressed woman, she suddenly became filled with an unexplainable joy; if she encountered a despairing man, he immediately found a purpose in life. The woman spread grace and joy and peace throughout the world, accomplishing an immense amount of good without realizing it, and became known to everyone as the Holy Shadow (Bausch, 60 More Seasonal Homilies, p. 85). We are called to live in this same spirit, letting our presence in the world make a difference— but shadows require light, and that’s why Jesus wants us to share our light with others.
The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mt 5:13-16) is short, but very important—for Our Lord tells us we must be salt for the earth and light for the world. In other words, we must live in a way that really makes a difference. The 1st Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (58:7-10) tells us how: by sharing bread with the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and clothing the naked. “Then,” says the Lord, “your light shall break forth like the dawn. . . .” When we treat others with justice and compassion, God hears our prayers and gives us the light of His truth and the glory of His gift of salvation. St. Paul (1 Cor 2:1-5) tells us that our faith must rest not on human wisdom, but on the power of God—and if God’s powerful love is like the rising sun, or like an immense searchlight, we’re supposed to be like mirrors reflecting it to others and enlightening the world around us.
Over 100 years ago a missionary traveling to India was feeling miserably seasick one night, so he stayed in his cabin on the ship. Suddenly he heard the cry, “Man overboard!,” and heard the crew rushing to the deck above in their effort to find the man in the water. “What can I do to help?” the missionary asked himself. “I’d just be in the way up on the deck.” Then he noticed the lantern hanging from the ceiling of his cabin. He unhooked it and held it near the port-hole, or window, of his cabin, so that it might cast a little light on the sea. At that moment there was a shout from above, “There he is!” It turned out that the little bit of light from the missionary’s lamp was just enough to allow the crew to see the man who had fallen overboard, and to pull him up from the water (Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 9, #313). That’s an inspiring story, because it means our little efforts can sometimes make a big difference—even when we don’t realize it, and even when we think we have nothing valuable to offer. Someone at work or school might be having a terrible day, and be thinking, “The whole world stinks!”—but then our friendly smile or simple act of kindness might be like a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds. A neighbor or classmate might be lonely or depressed, and be thinking, “No one cares about me”—but then our invitation to the person to spend time or do something with us might be as refreshing as a breath of fresh air. A family member or friend might be grieving or going through a very difficult experience, and worrying, “What am I going to do?”—but then our arm around his or her shoulders and our simple words “I’m praying for you” might prove to be the encouragement the person needs to keep on going and hoping and trusting that things will get better.
Jesus is not asking us to do great things, but to use the little opportunities we’re given to let our light shine forth; He doesn’t expect us to calculate or be aware of the impact our little acts of kindness are having on others, but simply to trust that if our hearts our open, we will be channels of His grace and peace. You and I haven’t been nominated by an angelic committee to receive special gifts from God unavailable to anyone else; the very fact that we’re Christians means we’re all supposed to be sources of Christ’s light in the world. If we try to do this, the shadows we cast on earth will bring blessings to others, and the light we share will bring glory to God.