In the liturgical season between Epiphany and Lent, one of the major themes is Light. Christ is revealed as the Light of the World.
Now, here’s the funny thing about light: you can’t see it. You only know it’s there because it allows you to see everything else when it’s around. Even if you look at a light bulb, you’re not really seeing light; you’re seeing little strips of metal that have been heated up by electricity. The heating process causes the metal strips to emit light into the room. You can see the strips glowing, but that’s not light itself, just the effect.
Today’s readings introduce us to the idea of Christ as Light. Isaiah says it first and Matthew quotes him later:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”
The psalmist takes up the theme as well:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”
What does it mean to follow Christ the Light when we cannot see light itself?
My working theory is that we can experience the presence of Christ in the effect Christ has on the lives of people around him.
In today’s gospel, Christ encounters several people who will become his first disciples. We could say that he ‘illumines’ or even ‘enlightens’ them with his presence.
Let’s look at the text:
Where does Jesus first encounter Simon, Andrew, James, and John? On a beach.
And what are they doing as he walks up? Simon and Andrew are “casting a net into the sea.” James and John are “mending their nets.”
This starts off as a rather boring scene. These four people are only going about their daily routine. Christ meets them in the midst of everyday life.
This is important because it gives us a hint about where, when, and how we can expect to encounter Christ in our lives as well: in the mundane, boring, everyday stuff.
If they were construction workers, he would have met them on a job site. If they were doctors, he would be sitting in the waiting room. If they were students, he would be sitting next to them in class. If they were dialysis patients, he would be hooked up to the machine next to them. Wherever we happen to find ourselves is the place where Christ meets us.
This runs counter to the idea that one can only have spiritual experiences in spiritual places, or that one can only meet God in godly places.
If they had been drug dealers, Christ would have met them on the corner where they sell their dope. If they had been strippers, Christ would have met them at the club.
Religious people tend to have a hard time with this reality. We think that Christ only shows up when someone has sufficiently prepared themselves for the encounter, but Scripture plainly and repeatedly shows us that Jesus is not interested in such distinctions. Christ is everywhere. The only thing spirituality does is prepare us to see him whenever and wherever he meets us. In this case, it was on a beach with a bunch of uneducated, working-class fishermen.
The next thing Jesus does is even more interesting: he approaches Simon and Andrew and says:
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
He doesn’t say, “I will make you stop fishing.” Nor does he say, “What are you doing, wasting your time with this stuff?” He begins by affirming what they already know.
Just like light, Christ does not change the essential nature of the ones he shines upon. They don’t cease to be themselves. They are fishermen now, and so they will remain in God’s plan for their life.
Many people come to the Church because they want to be (or pretend to be) something other than what they are. But Christ doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t take fishermen and make them into saints; he makes them into saintly fishermen.
The light shines on us as we are, but it also helps us to see what we are more clearly. If I wake up before dawn, I can stumble around the room, looking for my clothes. Or I can turn on the light to look for them. Turning on the light doesn’t change the location of my clothes, it just lets me see where they already are.
When Christ the Light shines more brightly in our lives, we remain ourselves, but we come to see ourselves more clearly. Jesus saw something in Simon and Andrew that they had not yet seen in themselves. They were meant for bigger things than what they were already doing. Jesus helped them to see the deeper meaning of their lives and the calling that God had in store for them. They would remain fishermen, but they would be “fishing for people,” according to Jesus.
This is how Christ the Light shines in our lives today. We come to church, read the Bible, receive the sacraments, and discover that we are changing from the inside out. We do not cease to be who we have always been, but the deeper nature of our lives is revealed. We are like the elements of the Eucharist, which remain bread and wine in a physical sense, but are transformed spiritually into the Body and Blood of Christ.
I once heard a story about a woman who worked at a post office. When a new acquaintance asked her what she did for a living, she wisely responded, “I am a servant of the living God, cleverly disguised as a postal worker.”
When we look at ourselves in the mirror, or look at our lives, we see the disguise we have built for ourselves (or the disguise that was given to us by society). We see race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, education, employment, or criminal record. We come to falsely identify ourselves with these things because they are obvious and visible.
But the real truth of our lives lies beneath the surface of those accidental qualities. None of them fully captures the essence of who we really are. When Christ the Light shines upon us, our true selves are revealed. We, and others, begin to see more clearly the divine image we bear. Christ met fishermen and revealed the apostles in each of them.
Christ sees you and draws out the saint or mystic that lives just beneath the surface of your life. Maybe you just didn’t see it clearly before now. But that’s okay, because the lights have been turned on over you and the real you can now be seen and loved for who you really are.
So, go out into the world today as your true self, deepened and revealed by the light of Christ. With that light as your guide, see in yourself and others the beauty and dignity of Christ, whose image you bear. Be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today, and “let your light shine before all people, that they may see your good works and praise your Father in heaven.”