The Light of the World

SCRIPTURES & ART: The salt and light of our good works exists not only for our own sakes but to help others.

William Holman Hunt, “The Light of the World,” between 1851 and 1856
William Holman Hunt, “The Light of the World,” between 1851 and 1856 (photo: Public Domain)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cautions his disciples to “take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them … (Matthew 6:1). We’ll hear that teaching on Feb. 22, Ash Wednesday. Today Jesus tells us “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” So, does Jesus want us to show our good deeds or not?

Both. He wants us to show them without showing them off.

As we observed last week, the Sermon on the Mount seeks to internalize morality, to synchronize what good we do with good intentions why we do it. It’s not a question of “either/or” but “both/and.” Jesus cautions not against good deeds but against good deeds done “in order that people may see them,” i.e., to win human esteem rather than please God.

Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for praying in public because they wanted the limelight, not because they necessarily had something to say to God. He urges them to wash and comb their hair so as not to advertise their fasting by haggard and unkempt appearance. He tells them to give alms in secret so as to reap God’s, not man’s approval.

Get the motive right and do as much good as you can!

Salt usually doesn’t exist for itself. Salt usually is used in conjunction with some other food. Its presence improves the other food’s taste and, from Jesus’ day until not that long ago, also served to preserve food like meat. Light doesn’t exist for itself. God’s first creation exists to illumine other things.

So, the salt and light of our good works does not exist only for our own sakes but to help others. Good is attractive in a “good” sort of way. What do I mean? It’s not like evil. It doesn’t tempt. It doesn’t seduce. It doesn’t trick us into doing it. It generally simply appeals to us and, when we find ourselves caught up in it, that appeal tends to be contagious. We are naturally oriented towards good, because the Supreme Good (God) is our end. Jesus says it in today’s Gospel: when others see “your good deeds [they may] glorify your heavenly Father.”

Human beings are often influenced by example, both for good and evil. A favorite motif in literature and the arts often is the multiplicative effects of good and evil. Think A Christmas Carol and the baneful impact of Ebenezer Scrooge. Think It’s a Wonderful Life and the beneficial impact of George Bailey.

Pope St. Paul VI reminded us, in a quote often repeated by his successors, that modern man is best taught not be words but deeds, by witness rather than lecture. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, the Pope wrote: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

He adds, “The witness of life has become more than ever an essential condition for real effectiveness in preaching. Precisely because of this we are, to a certain extent, responsible for the progress of the Gospel that we proclaim.”

Or its lack of progress. Hypocrisy is a guaranteed showstopper. Nothing alienates people, especially young people, more than inauthenticity, the dissonance between what is on a person’s outside and his inside. Nothing has impaired the Church’s message — especially her moral message today — more than the hypocrisy of ongoing sexual scandals left to simmer with nominal “transparency.” Vatican II (Gaudium et spes, 19) reminded Catholics that one cause of atheism in today’s world is Catholics who give nothing but lip service to their faith, saying one thing and doing something else. Their own lives become bushel baskets obstructing the light of Christ.

The Christopher Movement originated in 1945 in New York, inspired in part by their motto, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” They want to be “Christophoros” — Christ bearers. That’s what Jesus is telling us we should all be, according to today’s Gospel.

So, in light of today’s Gospel, here are some questions to ask one’s self:

Am I radiating Christ’s light and savor to the world? Or am I blocking it and putting my fellow human beings on a salt-free diet?

Even if I’m not blocking Christ’s light, am I radiating it as well as I can? If not, how can I do so better?

What is my motivation for doing good? How can I increase my love of others in what I do? How can I purify that good from the taint of self — centered motives? (Doing good for others and our good often go hand-in-hand — we are Christians, not Kantians intent on being disinterested — but that doesn’t mean self-pride in “the good that I do” doesn’t sometimes creep in).

When you were baptized, the priest gave your parents and godparents on your behalf a candle, marking that you had been “enlightened by Christ” and were now to enlighten the world. Although it’s not Eastertide, it’s always appropriate to do a check on my baptismal vows: how am I doing in that enlightenment department?

About 100 years ago, American Protestants wrote “This Little Light of Mine,” a Gospel song that seems primarily aimed at children. Perhaps we should make its motto our own.

To illustrate today’s Gospel, I chose English artist William Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World.” The oil painting, dating from the early 1850s, exists in various versions.

I’ll be the first to admit that the picture is a somewhat awkward fit with today’s Gospel, because Hunt painted it to illustrate Revelation 3:20 (“I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter in and dine with him and he with me”). The painting is about Christ, not the Christian, as “light of the world.” That said, I still think there is a relevance.

Why? Well, first of all because as Christians, we are “sons in the Son,” adopted children of God engrafted into Christ Jesus by virtue of baptism, where we were enlightened. So we share in our Master’s mission.

Yes, Jesus is “the Light of the World” (John 8:12) and every one of his disciples — from Mary on down — are just so many satellites, moons that reflect his light for better or worse. What good we do begins with God’s grace, but we also put our stamp on it, just like one moon’s topography better reflects the light it receives than another.

Like this painting we, too, must open the door to receive Christ’s light. But sometimes Jesus also sends us as the welcome wagon to our neighbor’s door. This is especially true of laity, who may sometimes have an entrée that others, like priests and nuns, don’t.

The crucified Christ (note that he bears a crown of thorns) comes to this remote, off-the-beaten path door. The weeds and other growth around it suggest the door has been firmly closed for a long time. There’s no doorknob or other handle on the door: only the home-dweller can open it. Jesus is not a SWAT team: He does not kick in the door but stands patiently, knocking. His knocking might sometimes be more insistent, perhaps even pounding to wake up those who still “slumber, though the night is far over,” but he respects the freedom of the home-dweller.

Christ’s lantern — a personification of himself — is the primary source of light in this painting. The pale light in the sky, perhaps from the moon, and a star almost directly above and behind Christ’s head, are the only other sources of light to illumine this sealed country cottage with its windowless, solid wooden door. Jesus’ face is serious, as is the seriousness of this effort at encounter with the self-confined inhabitant. Hunt admits he sought to emphasize Jesus’ solidity, his real flesh-and-bloodness, against what he criticized in contemporary religious art that “’In England … spiritual figures are painted as if in vapour. I had a further reason for making the figure more solid than I should have otherwise done in the fact that it is the Christ that is alive forevermore. He was to be firmly and substantially there waiting for the stirring of the sleeping soul.”

Hunt’s painting in its various versions was among the most popular religious works in Victorian England and has been repeatedly reproduced since. Introducing readers to this work seemed fitting in light of today’s Gospel.

Hunt was part of the English pre-Raphaelite movement, a grouping of artists who wanted to recover 14th-century Italian art without what they considered the deformations introduced by Raphael. One distinguishing characteristic of their work is the richness of intense color, apparent even in the subdued greens and other hues that dominate this painting. We’ve met their work before, here and here.