“This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine!”
This popular Sunday school song’s message is as rudimentary as it is overlooked. As a young theologian, I frequently hear the analogy that the Church is the light of the world, but as well-intentioned as this claim may be, it is inaccurate. Christ, not the Church, is the light of the world. The Church is the humble conduit, the lighthouse, that ideally lets Christ shine through it. We believe that the light of Christ was entrusted to the Apostles and, thanks to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it will never go out. However, a foggy lighthouse in already stormy weather can prevent, rather than intensify, the light of Christ from shining forth to all the nations.
Growing up, when I was constantly mocked for my faith, I sometimes felt anger and contempt for those who teased me. Admittedly, I even acted on these emotions, and the light of Christ turned into an inferno of hatred. But when I lashed out, I only pushed people farther away from Christ, and the lighthouse grew dimmer in the storm.
The author of life you put to death,Acts 3:15, 17
but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.
Now I know, brothers,
that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did;
Imagine how the earliest Apostles felt when they were tortured and humiliated in public. Even those who escaped physical harm were often cast out of their communities. If we think it is difficult to respond charitably to Christianity’s modern opponents, imagine how it would have felt to embrace Christ’s radical call to love if you were run out of town or if a relative of yours was crucified. One of Christ’s final commandments was “forgive them, they know not what they do” as he agonized on the cross. The earliest Apostles were tempted far more than most American Catholics today to lash out at their oppressors, yet Christ insisted that they show kindness and mercy to them, for they were simply ignorant of His message. And who could blame them? Early Christianity was quite strange! Slaves and upper-class women dined together in “love feasts” that included eating God in a “cannibalistic” ritual. The former practice challenged social hierarchies and the latter threatened the godlike status of the emperor. Christianity, understandably, made many Romans and Jews uncomfortable.
The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way,Luke 24:35-36
and how Jesus was made known to them
in the breaking of bread.
While they were still speaking about this,
he stood in their midst and said to them,
“Peace be with you.”
But they were startled and terrified
and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
If the citizens of Rome were unnerved at the message of Christ’s proselytes, consider how the Apostles felt when they were faced with the terrifying implications of the resurrection. Imagine the anxiety that was stirred in them when the man who predicted they would be relentlessly persecuted suddenly appeared before their eyes. Until this moment, it is likely that many of these disciples were preparing to return to their pre-Christian lives. Christianity was scary even to its earliest practitioners.
Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled?Luke 24:37-44
And why do questions arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.
Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones
as you can see I have.”
And as he said this,
he showed them his hands and his feet.
While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed,
he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of baked fish;
he took it and ate it in front of them.
Christ’s controversial words and amazing deeds were not enough to motivate the Apostles. It took a personal encounter with the risen Christ, touching His wounds, for them to believe in Him. This moment of conversion after a lifechanging encounter is fitting; the faith journey of nearly every great first-generation Saint began with a personal encounter with Christ. After the first generation of Christians passed, converts depended on encountering the light of Christ through the lighthouse known as the Church.
Our post-Christian world is like that of the early Christians. Not many people have had a personal encounter with Christ, and our ideas are strange and alien to them. The only depictions of Christians, especially Catholics, that many people see come from a media that portrays us as angry, vindictive, regressive, and judgmental. Our adversaries, of course, want our reactions to reflect such labels. There is a stomach-churning scene in 42, a biopic about Jackie Robinson, in which the titular Black baseball player is ruthlessly taunted with racial slurs by the opposing team’s manager, Ben Chapman. Robinson strikes out, rushes into the locker room, and smashes his bat against the wall. He sobs uncontrollably until his team’s owner, Branch Rickey, confronts him. Robinson expresses his desire to fight back against Chapman, but Rickey rebukes him, saying, “If you fight, they won’t say Chapman forced you to. They’ll say that you’re in over your head,” knowing that if Robinson harmed Chapman, it would have likely meant the end of African Americans in major league baseball.
Those who say, “I know him,” but do not keep his commandments1 Jn 2:4-5a
are liars, and the truth is not in them.
How often do we give into the temptation to hurt those who persecute us? How often are we hypocrites whose self-righteous rage obscures the light of Christ? How often do we blame others for not knowing Christ or being attracted to His message when we have not done our best to show them His unending love and mercy? The secular media wants us be the Christians it portrays us as, rather than the Christians God wants us to be. But to combat this, we must recognize how radical and alien our Christian values are to others. We must respond to those who oppose us with the same respect and understanding that Christ gave to His killers. We have no right to be angry, for Christ Himself was not angry throughout all of His suffering. Likewise, we have no right to be arrogant or judgmental of the character of our adversaries. Before we are scholars or theologians, we must be conduits through which the light of Christ is reflected in our actions. As St. Francis of Assisi says, “Preach the Gospel! Use words when necessary!”