“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."
- Matthew 5:14-16
But it was the second sentence that struck me as I read this passage today:
"A city built on a hill cannot be hid."
A few things occurred to me as I reflected on that verse.
The city did not make itself.
It it dawned on me as I reflected, that the city did not choose to be on the hill. It did not drag itself, brick by brick, to a place where it would be a beacon to the world. No. It was only on that hill because it was put there under someone else's power. It was someone else that gave the city its influence, its significance, and the chance to "shine before others."
There is a pervasive attitude in our world today that says we have to "make something of ourselves". That is what the world means by "letting your light shine." But that's not what God means. Though it is true that we do have a responsibility for what we do with our lives and the gifts we've been given (Jesus was clear about that), the city did not have to make itself, and neither do we.
At the moment of your Baptism, you received a light that cannot be extinguished. The Holy Spirit is in you, whether you know it or not. Your soul was changed in that moment in a way that can never be undone. The fancy term for that is "indelible mark". In other words, your soul has been marked, claimed for God with a stamp that cannot be removed or "deleted."
It is the Holy Spirit living and moving and breathing in you that will "make something of you". All you have to do is cooperate.
You and I, from the moment of our Baptisms, became those cities on a hill. We were placed there by God, with the help of our parents and God-parents. You may not have chosen it when it happened (if you were Baptized as an infant), but you are there nonetheless.
Whether or not you will be on that hill is no longer up to you. You have been built. You have been planted. You have been placed there with great dignity, with divine purpose, and people see you - whether you want them to or not.
Does that scare you? It scared me a bit when I first thought of it. If you're anything like me, you spend a lot of time trying to put your best face forward. The reality of being human, though, is that we can't keep our flaws to ourselves forever. Sooner or later our imperfections out themselves, and the idea of "hiding under a bushel basket" suddenly becomes very appealing. But you can't hide a city. Something is always going to give it away.
The home I grew up in sits on the side of a bluff in rural Wisconsin. If you have ever been in the country at night, far from the city, you know how still and complete the darkness can be. In it, everything seems close, intimate. Everything except the stars, which leap brightly from the blackened sky with intensity that you can never see in the city. During the day, people can see our family home from miles away if they know where to look, but at night it almost completely disappears. When no one is there and all of the lights are off, you can barely spot the faint speck of light that is our doorbell. It's nearly impossible, and you can never be quite sure that that is what you are actually seeing, but if you look hard enough it can be found.
Sadly, this is the way that many of us live our lives. Instead of shining brightly to the glory of God, we shut the blinds and turn off everything that comes with a light switch. If we turned on all of the lights and opened the blinds, everyone would be able to see inside! They could see our messy rooms, the dishes we didn't wash, the laundry we didn't put away, the light bulbs we haven't gotten around to replacing, and the little figurine that our aunt gave us that is totally uncool (but we secretly really love it).
We couldn't hide anymore.
But that's just it - the idea that hiding is an option is an illusion. Remember? You are a "city on a hill", which "cannot be hid." People see you. And they either see you living brightly and joyfully, or they see your boarded-up windows and "No Trespassing" signs.
So, are you a city full of light? Or one that has been closed up? I think most of us are a little of both. There are areas that we leave open - the safe areas that we're not ashamed of or where we want affirmation - and there are others that are always closed. The challenge is allowing Christ in to all of those places, both "safe" and "unsafe", so that He can make them all bearers of light.
You don't have to shine on your own.
See, God didn't place you up on that hill and then abandon you. He gave you the Holy Spirit, so you could become something greater by His power than you could ever be on your own.
We were not meant to hide away in fear with closed blinds and doused lights, "for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (2Tim 1:7). It is a Spirit that transforms, that "makes all things new" (Rev 21:5). And if we really believe that God is God, we have to believe that He is actually capable of turning sinners into Saints. If we believe that, the places we hide become places of glory, because it is there that we see how truly awesome God is. If we believe that, we no longer have to be afraid.
If we really believe that God is God, we have to believe that He is actually capable of turning sinners into Saints.
These Saints lived as cities ablaze with the light of God. And because of their courage, we know Christ. Because of them, we can take heart in the assurance that no one is too far gone, no shadow is too dark, no city is beyond repair. After all, Jesus was a carpenter.
As we continue to reflect on the mystery of Christ's resurrection in the First Reading for this upcoming Sunday (the 7th week of Easter), we hear of two different Saints - St. Stephen, and Saul (before we knew him as Paul). One we meet as he becomes a martyr, the other in the midst of his sin.
In the video below, Jeff Cavins reflects on the witness of Stephen, and the impact that he must have had on Saul. "You never know who's watching..." he says, "Someone is watching you live." We never know how the way we live our lives will affect those around us. By the grace of God, may each of us have the courage to live boldly and joyfully in the glory of God, as shining cities on a hill. Unafraid. Unashamed. Unhidden.