The Light of the World Banishes Fog, Nancy Kay Grace,
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[Jesus said] “…your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” Matthew 516.
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There is a very creepy character in Dickens’ David Copperfield called Uriah Heep. He was always quick to belittle himself in public and proclaim himself to be everyone’s humble servant, but at heart he was a self-seeking, self-serving, and self-aggrandizing hypocrite! The Lord’s instruction to us all today, quoted above, should be taken very carefully so as not to become a Uriah Heep redivivus. The key line is that our good deeds must glorify our Father in heaven – that is to say, not ourselves! We all like to receive compliments but many of us do not know how to respond appropriately and truthfully. The Lord gives us a little advice here though, instructing us to acknowledge that all our skill comes from God. Figuring out a way to do this well and without seeming to be a sort of pious Uriah Heep is a challenge. Our job on this earth is to be exactly the sort of Christian person God wants us to be. We are to go through life using the gifts our God has given to each of us, and sometimes the way we have used these gifts prompts a compliment or a thank you. Our challenge is to appreciate the compliment appropriately, but we know that ultimately it is God who should to be thanked. Saying that prompted a memory from years ago. I was shaking hands after celebrating a Mass. I grew up in the UK and have a London accent which my grand-niece once told me was “posh”. Well, a lady came up to me after Mass and said “Oh father, I love the way you speak; I could listen to you all day long”. Now I know that many Americans are partial to a British accent, why I don’t know, but there it is. So I responded, “Oh thank you so much. Did you like what I said?” Pause. Then “Oh father I don’t know what you said, but it sounded beautiful…” Well on that occasion even father was at a loss for words. Any suggestions? Sometimes the best response is simply a radiant smile and a profound “Thank you”. Seriously though, how do you steer a compliment you have received to the author of all good without seeming unctuous? Jesus’ instruction is crystal clear, but how do you do it in practice?
I imagine that most, if not all of us shrink a little when praise is bestowed on us for something we have done which can be considered good in the eyes of the Lord. We have done it because we thought it was needed, would help someone, would witness to the presence of God and so on. In other words we have done what any good Christian is supposed to do. It is certainly nice to receive a compliment, but we are all careful in such a situation knowing it is really God working through us; it isn’t us who should be praised, it is God. Somehow it would be good if we could divert that praise to the Lord, who deserves it and enabled us to do it, yet not put down the one praising us. They might end up feeling bad by thinking they had somehow messed up what they thought was a compliment. In fact, it could be a teachable moment if we had our wits about us. For example, I gave a sermon on the Hebrew idea of God’s Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. The words Spirit and Wisdom are both feminine in Hebrew, unlike in English and the Latin from which we get much of our church expression. I pointed out that Jesus, hearing “he” or “him” used in the synagogue for God’s Holy Spirit would be as astonished as much as we would be if we used what, in my opinion, should be, “she” and “her” when talking about the Holy Spirit. For example, Proverbs 9:1, “Wisdom has built her house She has set up her seven pillars…” Well after that sermon, one gentleman came up to me and announced that the sermon had changed his life and thanked me profusely! I simply responded with a florid “thank you”, but in retrospect I could have done much better. The teachable moment could have been: “Yes, thanks; isn’t it wonderful what we can still learn from Scripture, and that there must still be great treasures to unearth from it.” That might have sent him back to the good book to find out more. The trouble is, I have found out from my experience, the great responses come well after the actual moment, what I should have said but didn’t. How can we be prepared for an immediate decent response in any and every such situation? Perhaps by trying to be simply sensitive to potential compliments after some special situation where we may say something useful or interesting or both. The satisfaction should come from the knowledge that we at least tried to give a good Christian reflection in that situation that did not come out as churchy or saccharine, and certainly not be angry or upset that we did not get congratulated! The knowledge that we did our best should be sufficient; the Lord certainly knows that. And take heart from this:
You Are the Light of the World…
…which has the wonderful line “If that salt has lost its flavor, it ain’t got much in its favor” should not be taken literally. Salt can’t lose its flavor, just as we can’t lose our identity as a child of God. But it does mean that if we fail God in some way, we can always say sorry and know we are forgiven, that it will not happen again, and start over. But as good children of God, we should always and everywhere seek to give honor where honor is due, namely, to God.
The Virgin of Humility, Fra Angelico c.1435, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain.
I don’t often comment on the artwork on this webpage, but an exception is made here. Fran Angelico was one of the greatest artistic masters of the Middle Ages. He was a Dominican friar who lived in Tuscany in Italy. His work became very well known for its quality and its radiance. As a monk he was renowned for his humility and holiness. Indeed, the Angelic Brother was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982. His work, then, pointed not to him but to the eternal truth and beauty of God and the saints. Our Lady of Humility represents a summation of his genius, holiness and total dedication to the Lord.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.