The boxer Muhammed Ali, who died in 2016, was a man who could never be accused of a lack of self-confidence. Here are a few memorable quotes from the fighter: “I’m young; I'm handsome; I'm fast. I can't possibly be beat.” “I’ve wrestled with alligators. I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning and thrown thunder in jail.” “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as me.”
Most of us tend to shy away from making grandiose claims about ourselves because we know that it makes us look foolish to claim something that we can’t back up. Maybe we wish we were the greatest, but there are plenty of reminders every day of our limitations. And so, none of us has probably ever said this, “I am the light of the world.” Even Muhammed Ali never ventured quite that far. How crazy would you have to be, right? What effect could we really have on the world, let alone the singular claim to be a light for others?
And yet, as audacious as it sounds, that very thing is claimed for us by Jesus Christ in today’s Gospel. “You are the light of the world…You are the salt of the earth.” And remember, our Lord isn’t telling this just to the twelve apostles in a private room. This is coming from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is sitting on the side of a mountain, with hundreds of His followers gathered around Him to listen. People from every sort of background - farmers, fishermen, the simple, the scholars of the law, men, women, children. He says to them, and to us, that not only do our actions have significance within the realm of our own lives, but they have a power and a meaning for everyone with whom we come in contact.
Last Sunday, we heard the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which we resume in today’s Gospel. Today’s section picks up right after the proclamation of the Beatitudes. Recall that the Beatitudes are those dispositions which make for a truly blessed life and to which Christ attaches promises of salvation, peace, and fulfillment. Everyone wants to be happy, and the good news is that God wants us to be happy too! But not in a superficial sense. He wants to fill us with a joy that nothing and no one can ever steal from us, which no earthly misfortune or disappointment can ever shatter. The path to this happiness takes us down an arduous path of training our minds and hearts in the way of Christ. It’s the royal road of the cross. Like Jesus, the man of sorrows accustomed to infirmity, our sacrifices, our sufferings take on a strange and mysterious power when accepted in obedience to the Father. It is the lives of the saints that give us the courage to embark on this path and to not turn back because they actually lived out what Christ taught to the full. They took the risk of taking the hard road and they became truly happy. They are the light of the world: their great deeds cause us to glorify the Father, and they show us the truth about human flourishing.
Brothers and sisters, as we hear today, this is our calling as well: to give light. We can be confident and unafraid because the light is not ours, and it doesn’t reflect back on ourselves. The light is entirely Christ’s. Elsewhere in the Gospels, after telling us that we are the light of the world, He also reaffirms, “I am the light of the world.” It is through our union with Christ that our lives give light. Nothing can substitute for union with Christ. We can be intelligent, successful, and powerful, but a sincere striving for holiness attracts in a way that nothing else can because it savors of the happiness that every heart desires.
So let us be eager for a deeper union with Christ, not only for our own sake, but knowing that the happiness of others may also be dependent upon the light of Christ shining through us. By our Baptism into Christ, we share in His mission. Jesus probably isn’t going to appear personally to your neighbors and friends and say, “Hey, it’s me. It’s all true, so change your life and follow me in order to be everlastingly happy.” Why would Christ do that, when He’s already sent you to share His light? Wouldn’t a personal apparition from Jesus actually be redundant if we’re already present to our neighbors and friends, letting Christ’s light be fully manifest to them without holding back or hiding? Wild as it may seem, the lofty vocation of each Christian is precisely this.
You are the light of the world - a foolish and outlandish statement, but for the fact that the blood of Jesus backs it up. He laid down His life that we might become holy, and He gives us the means through our contact with Him, above all in the sacraments, in which power goes forth from Him - the power of forgiveness, the power of healing, the power of transforming love. Let us then draw joyfully from the wellspring of salvation which lies within our reach. Christ comes to us in the Eucharist, the sacrament of divine love. Receiving this immortal Light veiled in mystery, may we carry it forth, so that others may come to know the peace which comes only from the living God.