Lent is about to dawn, and today’s readings are a wake-up call. Even on a bleak February day, the readings are suffused with images of light. Twice the prophet of Second Isaiah tells the people that their light shall break forth like the dawn or rise in the darkness. It is not the light of victories in war or of resplendent worship, but giving bread to the hungry, sheltering the homeless and removing from their midst the malicious speech that can destroy a community. The psalm heralds the person who is gracious, merciful and just and gives to the poor. Such a one is a light in the darkness, and Jesus tells his disciples that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Images of light span the Bible. After the wind swept over the formless void, the first words spoken by God in the Bible are, Let there be light, and God saw how good the light was. The Book of Revelation ends when God will give light to his servants forever (22:5). In a modern city, where technology can turn night into day, the contrast between light and darkness loses its force. In Jesus’ time, darkness came suddenly, enveloping the whole land. Only with the help of light from a lampstand do the faces of others become visible. Light becomes a beacon to guide a travel-weary pilgrim; its faint glimmer signals the beginning of a new day.
A follower of Jesus is to be all of these, and Matthew tells us how this will happen. This section follows the Beatitudes, which describe the values to which a disciple should aspire, and it precedes the contrast statements that describe the higher form of justice evoked by Jesus: renunciation of anger, marital integrity, honesty in speech, breaking the cycle of violence and forgiving enemies. At the Second Vatican Council, echoing Isaiah and this Gospel, the bishops began their reflection on the church by calling it a light for the nations (lumen gentium). This description remains a mandate for every follower of Christ to live those values expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, and so become a beacon of hope for others and perhaps signal the dawn of a new day. Lent provides a time to reflect on this mission.