Light: literally, spiritually, and figuratively

True charity participates in the life of Christ.


Occasion: Sunday, February 5th, 2017 Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the full readings here. This Lectio is based on the Responsorial Psalm.


The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.
Light shines through the darkness for the upright;
he is gracious and merciful and just.
Well for the man who is gracious and lends,
who conducts his affairs with justice.
R. The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.
He shall never be moved;
the just one shall be in everlasting remembrance.
An evil report he shall not fear;
his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD.
R. The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.
His heart is steadfast; he shall not fear.
Lavishly he gives to the poor;
His justice shall endure forever;
his horn shall be exalted in glory.
R. The just man is a light in darkness to the upright.

Standout words

light, rises, darkness, shall not fear


The world grows dark once the sun sets, and remains so until dawn. Because of this, darkness is not so much “something” as “something’s absence;” in particular, darkness is the absence of light. We notice darkness only because we are made to perceive light.

The Psalm tells us that light shines “through the darkness” for the upright. What darkness is this? Certainly not a literal darkness, but rather a figurative one? In one sense, yes, but in another sense, it refers to a very literal darkness: the absence of spiritual light. This light shines for us if we “merely” engage in upright acts: yes, it mentions abstinence from evil and confident faith in God, but also positive acts of good. It is not enough not to be “a bad person.” It is not enough merely to “have faith in God.” If you mean these things, truly mean them, then you must engage in good works as naturally as water must flow out from melting snow.

At this point we should say something more. The 2008 Revised Grail Psalter renders the opening line a little differently, “A light rises in the darkness for the upright.” What a difference these three small words make! Now the Psalm brings to mind the rising of Christ, our Light, from the dead. We are on good ground to follow this line of thinking; as the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours points out, “the Fathers of the Church saw the whole psalter as a prophecy of Christ and the Church and explained it in this sense.” Indeed, the New Testament itself refers to Christ in terms of light so often – the Canticle of Simeon calls him the Dawn from on High, the entire first chapter of the Gospel of John, to say nothing of the first chapter of John’s first epistle, the lamp of the New Jerusalem in Revelation, … – it would be tiresome and pointless to enumerate them all.

Let us glance beyond this reading to the others in Sunday’s liturgy. Both the first reading and the Gospel echo the steady, sacred heartbeat of a light shining in darkness. Isaiah’s reading promises that the light will dawn for us if we engage in charity – no mere words, no mere donations, no mere association with the right kinds of people who share all the right opinions. To the contrary, Isaiah doubles both the admonition and the promise! As for the Gospel, we have this business of God the Son going a little out of his way to give us this message in person:

Your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.

The emphasized word suggests in no uncertain terms that charity is not an option.

That charity is not our own! The light rises for us; it is not our own light: we share in it. We cannot think well of ourselves for engaging in charity, as if it were a sign of our goodness; that way lies a prideful fall back into darkness. That darkness we perceive is the absence of Christ’s light from our lives and the world around us. We notice the darkness because we are made to perceive Christ’s light! And so true charity finds its source in Christ’s charity, for true charity participates in the life of Christ. Only then can that light dawn in the darkness of our hearts; only then can we start to shine with his light.

In the Gospel Christ is gearing up for the great Sermon on the Mount, where he tells us that true Christian charity does not merely help the people we like, or for whom we care. True charity must extend even to our enemies, just as Christ extended his charity to us when we were his enemies. This is difficult, if not impossible, without God’s grace, for true charity consists not in a few coins, bills, or gifts under the angel tree. True charity, that participation in the life and light of Christ, consists in emptying ourselves for other, the way Christ gave himself to us. For it is only by emptying ourselves that we can be filled, brighter and brighter, with Christ’s light.

Author: Jack Perry

Catholic. Mathematician. Square monomial diagram in a round avatar's circle.

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