Who has not heard or even sung the ditty “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”? Children learn it and sing it with delight. As simple as the words may be, and as airy the melody, the message is profound. In fact, it can be fully understood only by adults, for it is a proclamation of one’s willingness to give witness to one’s faith.
The season of Lent is almost upon us. It is that time in the liturgical year when we reflect on our redemption and on our need for conversion. The readings for today lay out a possible plan of action. They summon us to take a stand for God by taking a stand in support of others. Isaiah calls us to share our bread, a work of mercy that is perhaps more beneficial than is mere fasting. We are told to shelter the oppressed and the homeless and to clothe the naked. These acts ultimately came to be referred to as the Corporal Works of Mercy: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the imprisoned; tend the sick; bury the dead. According to Isaiah, if we do these things, our “light will break forth like the dawn.”
We may think that we have all we can do to care for ourselves, and that caring for others is more than we can manage. We must remember, however, that Isaiah was speaking to a people who themselves have just returned from exile. They had to reconstruct their social and political world. They had a temple to rebuild and religious structures to put in place. It was to such a community that Isaiah delivered his challenge. In fact, he insisted that their care of others was the condition of their own restoration.
The Gospel reading does not list the works of mercy, but it does tell the people of Matthew’s community, and us as well, that with the power of God we can transform the world. Like salt, our care of others will bring out the best of a world that has turned sour; like the radiance of a lamp, we can enlighten a world that is floundering in darkness. We can be a city set on a mountain for all to see, a refuge and safe haven in a world threatened by hatred and terror.
Jesus’ words may be even more challenging than Isaiah’s. Paul’s words should encourage us today as we face the challenge. He approached his ministry “in weakness and fear and much trembling,” but he knew that it was God’s power at work in him. Ours may be only a little light, but if each of us lets it shine, we can indeed make a difference.