Early in the 20th century a married couple in Vermont bought a farm on the slope of a mountain in a remote, largely unpopulated area. A few weeks after moving in, they decided to go exploring, and walked down the hill behind their house, across the valley, and up the opposite slope. They came upon a small cabin in which an elderly woman lived alone. She was happy to have visitors, and asked them, “Are those your windows I see across the valley lighted up at night?” When they answered yes, the woman enthusiastically explained how much comfort and reassurance the lights gave her; she could look out across the valley every night, see the lights, and know that she wasn’t alone. But then she asked them with a worried look, “You are going to stay in your home and keep the lights shining every night, aren’t you?” The couple promised her they would, and when they returned home, they not only turned on their lights that night as usual; they also took down the curtains and shades over the windows facing in that direction, so that their light would shine even more brightly than before (Msgr. Arthur Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 2, #56). One of the reasons Jesus commands us to let our light shine forth is that there are people who truly need and want to see it—and that makes our efforts to share the light of faith one of the most important, and Christ-like, things we can ever do.
I’ve always believed that most people are easily influenced by the example of others—which is another way of saying there are many more followers in the world than there are leaders. A majority of people, if they see everyone around them being selfish, dishonest, and lawless, will end up behaving the same way—but if they see a determined example of honesty, compassion, and goodness, they’ll let themselves be pulled in that direction. Therefore, our example as Christians is often of far greater importance than we realize—and today’s readings speak of our duty to make this world a better place by putting our faith into practice. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah (58:7-10) states that if we oppose injustice and respond to the needs of those who suffer, we personally will benefit, for God will hear our prayers and respond to them with great love and mercy. St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians (2:1-5) that God will even help us share His good news. Paul uses himself as an example, stating that when he came to proclaim the Gospel to the Corinthians, he did so in fear and weakness and trembling—and the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit made his efforts successful. God does not ask us to do the impossible; He gives us the strength and abilities we need to carry out our mission—which means any failures to live out and proclaim the Gospel are our fault, not His. Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew (5:13-16), speaks of the uselessness of salt that’s gone flat, or of lamps hidden under baskets; so it is with people who call themselves Christians, but who give no signs that their lives have been changed in any practical way. A half-hearted faith is of no real benefit to anyone, and is actually offensive to God. It’s only by striving for a genuine commitment to Christ that we’ll become personally holy while bringing joy and light and peace to others.
A Christian medical doctor in Dallas once wrote an article for a religious magazine, in which he said: “One day [one of my patients,] a judge, came to my office. I asked him what he was really in for because his leg cast didn’t need to be checked. He said, ‘I just thought maybe you could give me a reason to live.’ He broke down and cried, [so I told him about Jesus and] I led him to the Lord. I asked him what prompted him to tell me that. He [answered,] ‘When you walked into the room, I saw something in your eyes that told me you had what I wanted. Something told me you knew the answer to life. I look in men’s faces all day long, judging the truth. I could see you believed with all your heart that what you were telling me was true. It was enough to convince me I needed it” (Craig Larson, Choice Contemporary Stories, #64).
A sincere, committed faith on our part can be a very powerful witness; our personal commitment to Jesus can end up making a lasting difference in someone else’s life. Even though, in a technological sense, communication and sharing is easier than ever before—with smart phones, e-mail, instant messaging, internet chat rooms, on-line social networks, and the like—many people today feel more isolated and alone than ever; quite a few persons need to see someone else’s light shining in the darkness to remind them that they’re not alone and that life can have a wonderful and glorious purpose. This is especially true in an age of growing societal moral confusion, decline, and disintegration; the light of our Christian faith is probably more valuable and vitally needed now than at any other point in our lifetimes.
What should we do? Very simply, we must first make sure our own relationship with Jesus is a living one that’s growing ever-stronger, a relationship that’s nourished by regular prayer, spiritual reading, and the reception of the sacraments. Then, we should ask the Lord at the beginning of each day to give us opportunities to share His love and truth, and help us recognize them when they come: whether at work, in the doctor’s office, while on the phone, in the checkout line, at the dinner table, or anywhere else. Finally, we should ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in knowing what to say and do whenever we encounter someone who seems sad, worried, lonely, fearful, or distressed. Sometimes a smile or a simple act of courtesy is sufficient; other times we may be led to ask “Is everything all right?,” or “Is there anything I can do?,” or “Would you like to talk about it?”
We don’t have to push our faith on others, but Our Lord does want us to let it shine forth in a powerful yet gentle and inviting way, so that those who’ve felt trapped in darkness may have the opportunity to reach out to us in hope. Jesus says we must glorify our Heavenly Father by our good deeds—and there’s no greater deed than sharing with others the light of faith we ourselves have received.