Christopher Smith is looking for the light
I always give vent to a slight obsession of mine at this time of year, which is a close observation of the incremental improvement in the length of the day. I am not a fan of dark mornings, and (as I will tell anyone careless enough to listen) the mornings carry on getting darker for two or three weeks after the evenings have started getting lighter. Even though the shortest day usually falls on 21st December, it starts getting lighter in the evenings on about the 12th, but it carries on getting darker in the mornings until about the turn of the year.
But by the time you read this, we will be getting to the point where we notice the difference, and the rate of change is building up nicely. By the end of the month, it will still be a bit light at 6.00 pm, which cheers me up a little. Going into vespers in the light is a sign that spring is on its way.
As Christians, we are surrounded by imagery about light and darkness. It’s in the scriptures; it’s in the liturgy. ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light’, says the prophet Isaiah; ‘the light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not’, says St John. And Jesus himself tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to be light for the world.
Bishop Gore, when he wrote a little book on the Sermon on the Mount, said that the Beatitudes told us about ‘the character of the citizens of the kingdom of God’, and the next passage, salt and light, taught us about ‘the place of this character in the world’. Even in the face of persecution, even in the face of false accusations and mockery, Christians have to be salt of the earth, and light of the world. That’s all a bit different from being ‘leaven in the lump’. We are called not just to be a little bit better than the people around us in the world, but something rather more radical. As Bishop Gore said, we are not called to help others by being like them, but by being unlike them: as he put it, ‘not by offering them a character which they shall feel to be a little more respectable than their own, but by offering them a character filled with the love of God’.
Salt, he says, has a distinctive flavour, ‘emphatic’ and ‘antagonistic’, he calls it, antagonistic literally meaning ‘opposing’, and so it keeps things pure. Light, he says, ‘is that which burns distinctively in the darkness’. And a city built on a hill is ‘a marked object, arresting attention over a whole country side’. Christians exist, he says, ‘in order to make the contrast of their own lives apparent to the world’. It is a tall order, but there it is, and no-one lights a lamp in order to hide it under a bushel, and salt without its savour would be pointless. ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven’.
So here we go then, resolving again that our light should shine in the world to the glory of God, and noting the world’s greater need than ever to come, however gradually, into the light. And we need to remember that, in a success-driven world (or so it likes to think of itself), we are going to look as if we have failed. But it might help to remember that the Lord was not, in his revelation to Elijah, in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in the still, small voice. And each of us can find one of those. Members though we are of the Body of Christ, the task of healing and hallowing the world around us may seem more difficult than ever. But our message is one not of the avoidance of death, but of the promise of life.
And ‘a city built on a hill-top cannot be hidden’. I’ve said before, in more or less these terms, that a success-driven church, taking its cue from the secular definition of success, will fail. We could force people by law to come to church, or send the boys round, or we could pay them to come, but what kind of mission is that? What we can do is to try our level best to be salt and light, and people must decide for themselves whether to approach the City of God or not. They know it’s there. One working band, one harvest song, one King omnipotent, in the words of the hymn.
The external mission of the Church, then, can never be separated from its inner life. The Body of Christ must clearly appear to others to be what it is, transformed by baptism into the human nature of Christ himself, transformed by participation in the eucharist. And the whole Body of Christ is present in any of its local manifestations. The offer is universal; it is catholic. It is easy to fall into the belief that ‘becoming a Christian’ is something we do, by adopting belief in God as he has revealed himself to us, or by taking on a new mode of behaviour influenced by the teaching and example of Jesus himself. But those things are the consequence of our becoming a Christian, not the cause of it. The Christian is someone to whom something has happened, something which is irreversible and which penetrates into the very roots of our being, because we have been recreated in and into Christ. ‘Walk always as a child of the light.’ Everybody out there can see the city on the hilltop. Our being salt and light can, we hope, get them to explore it.