"In that light, we see them, and help others to see them aright."
Ash Wednesday’s Gospel passage urges us to avoid the desire to be seen and admired by others as we go about our daily faith lives. Those who “perform righteous deeds” in order to be visible to others and to win their praise, empty their actions of any worth.
Better, Matthew concludes, to cloak our faith actions so that the approval of others cannot be our motivation.
Yet other parts of Scripture create a seeming contradiction, instructing us to be shining “cities on a hill,” our lights undimmed, showing God’s work to all and marking out the way for them.
In these latter passages, we are counseled not to hide our deeds, but rather to let them be a luminous example to others, shedding light on the inalienable dignity of all creation — especially those who languish in the shadows and margins of our communities, out of sight, and held in no particular esteem. We are called to show and recognize them in the truth of Christ: one and all, children of God.
Let us name some of them, these invisible men and women of our world: the poor, the despised, strangers, the homeless, prisoners. The lamp that was — and is — the Word made flesh and dwelling among us gives them a visibility, and allows us to see them through the eyes of faith, as they are and not as we have made them.
Scripture abounds in such “invisible” persons: Mary and Joseph, the blind Bartimaeus, Lazarus the beggar, fishermen, a Samaritan woman fetching water in the heat of the midday sun, a good Samaritan, and lepers.
And, yes, even the two prisoners who died on either side of the crucified Christ.
Matthew writes that on the day of judgment, the Lord will ask the righteous and the accursed what they did for prisoners and for all of the least of their brothers and sisters. They respond, “When did we see you...in prison, and visit you?”
When we visit prisoners, share faith with them, oppose their executions or the other profoundly inhumane punishments inflicted upon them, we hold God’s lamp high, making the invisible visible in its brilliant illumination.
In that light, we see them, and help others to see them aright. Not as their prison uniforms, nor as their prison-assigned titles of “offenders,” but as persons, sisters and brothers, loved by God, made in His image and for whom Jesus “pitched his tent among us.”
We began this reflection by remarking on what seemed at first glance to be a contradiction: on the one side, we are told not to make our faith actions visible in order to win applause, but on the other, we are directed to let faith’s light flow out and rescue from anonymity those who dwell unseen and unrecognized on the periphery of our communities.
In the end, there is no contradiction here, but rather a deeply important counsel. His Words, the “lamp unto [our] feet,” are given to us not for our own aggrandizement, but to guide us on our path. To continue casting light on, making visible, and treating justly, those who otherwise would remain unseen, so that their standing as God’s beloved is at last unreservedly recognized.
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