Shining the Light of Christ

St. Innocent, one of the greatest Russian missionaries who brought the Gospel to Alaska in the 19th century, admitted that his main problem in preaching to the native peoples of Alaska was the terrible witness of his fellow Russians, the fur traders and explorers. When St. Innocent preached the Good News to the native Alaskans, they would ask, “Aren’t these other Russian workers Orthodox Christian?  If yes, then why would we want to be like them? They drink too much, they abuse and take advantage of us, they are dishonest and greedy. If that is what it means to be a Christian, then we are not interested in your teachings!”  Only after a long time, during which St. Innocent offered a different example, modeling authentic Christian love, sacrifice, and service, did the Alaskans finally come to understand the beauty and truth of our Orthodox Christian faith.

“I am the light of the world,” Jesus proclaimed, “whoever believes in me shall not walk in darkness but shall walk in the light of life.” We all know this vivid image of Christ, the source of light whose love and truth shines forth in our world. Yet in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds all His disciples of another fundamental truth. Not only is HE the light of the world, but Christ tells his followers “YOU are the light of the world… Let YOUR light shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

What an incredible privilege and responsibility we each have. Each one of us is a small light, and God expects us to shine our light, His light through us, onto the rest of the world. When our family and friends, our neighbors and co-workers, and even strangers look at us and observe our lives, do they see the light of Christ, a light of love and compassion, kindness and mercy, truth and grace?

When the Alaskans looked at the life of St. Innocent, they saw the light of God’s love and hope, yet when they looked at the Russian explorers and fur traders, they saw hypocrisy and darkness. Do those who know us see a light that helps them draw closer to God and His love, or do they see darkness which pushes them away from the path of truth. It is a sobering thought to realize that our examples may cause people to either draw closer or fall away from God! We play a role in the path others take!

An inspiring illustration of shining Christ’s light to others occurred during WWII, when the Russians began their countermarch against the Nazis. A young Nazi soldier found himself behind Russian lines.  He was bleeding from a gun wound in one arm.  Bewildered and afraid, he found his way into the home of a poor Russian peasant. She welcomed him into her humble home, and offered him food and rest.  He did not understand why she was so kind, since he was her enemy, but before he departed, he noticed how she would stand before her icons of Christ and the saints, praying. This soldier recalled years later, “I could see God living in that home, even though I had never known Him before. Before this, I believed that God didn’t exist, but that the State was my god. And this false god taught me to hate those who didn’t believe as I believed. Although I had never even seen a Bible in my life, no less read one, from the witness of that woman, I came to realize that God was alive because I saw Him in the life of that poor peasant woman.”

A short time later, as this same soldier attempted to find his way back to the German lines, he became lost and returned to the home of this friendly Russian woman, only to discover that her home had been burned down because of what she had done to help an enemy soldier. Well, the soldier did eventually find his way back to the German side, but he found his way back as a new man! He had seen the light of God! And following the war, he decided to dedicate his life to serving Christ and trying to share the light of Christ with others, all because he witnessed God’s love and mercy through this humble Christian woman!

“Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Obviously, the witness of the saints throughout history has always shined God’s light onto the world around us! 

One of my favorite quotes from the great Russian thinker Dostoievski was when he said, “The criminal in your community may be less guilty for his crime than you, his Christian neighbor, for you could have been a light to the evil doer, yet you were not. For the man remained beside you in darkness. Had you been the kind of example you ought to have been and allowed your light to shine on that lost man’s path, perhaps he might not have stumbled into his crime. If you had loved your neighbor as yourself and lavished upon him some of the care you generously lavish upon yourself, shared some of the warmth God has privileged you to possess, that criminal might have changed in time.”

This thought-provoking statement reminds us of the responsibility we have for our neighbor, for “the other,” for those who surround us. How easily we judge and condemn, instead of accepting part of the responsibility to help those struggling with evil. We humans are all connected to one another, we are brothers and sisters with one another, and if we truly possess divine love, than we will be deeply concerned for the other. Read the daily newspapers and see countless examples of confused, hurting, desperate people who give in to temptations of violence, aggression, immorality and other vices. Are we allowing God’s divine light to shine on these people? Do we accept part responsibility for their actions? What are we concretely doing to reach out to such people? What are we doing to try and change the structures that lead people into poverty, violence, depression and despair?

We read this Gospel lesson today as we remember the Holy Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council because the reading summarizes two central aspects about the lives of these holy leaders.  First, we hear about the importance of allowing the good works of our lives to shine forth in a dark and sinful world. Second, we remember that whatever good works we do, the result should always be only for the glory of God, to lead people back to God!

“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven!” Today, let us go home thinking about what light we are radiating from our lives and how we are influencing our neighbor. Let us imitate the saints, past and present, who offered a bright light of God’s love, and thus, drew people closer to that source of love, God Himself!

 

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