17th Annual Mass with the American Cardinals
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Very Reverend David M. O?Connell, C.M., President
The Catholic University of America
April 28, 2006
Just a few short miles from here is the National Gallery of Art, containing one of the world?s finest collections of paintings, sculpture and other works of art dating from the early Middle ages until the present. One of the most frequented of the galleries houses a beautiful exhibit of French impressionist paintings. Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Degas and Monet are all represented. Earlier in my life I painted quite a bit and I loved to do Monet studies. The real beauty of his impressionist paintings, their most notable feature and challenge, is the interplay between color and light in nature. The color is in the object itself; its appearance and its beauty, however, depend upon the light to bring it out, to give it life. Impressionist artwork can be breathtaking as you see how important light is to color, as you realize how light can capture and change the way you look at the world.
The scripture readings of today?s Mass are brief, only a few sentences each. Good things come in small packages, so they say. As with impressionist painting, the thing that comes to the surface in both scripture readings today is the notion of light.
St. Paul writes of ?the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God ? who said ?let light shine out of darkness?.? St. Paul reminds us, as he did the Corinthian people, that the darkness gives way to the light that is ?on the face of Jesus Christ.? No greater work of art, no greater subject for light can be imagined. The more we look on the face of Jesus, like an impressionist painting, the more light we see and the more we are transfixed by it. As the psalmist says, ?In your light, we see light itself.?
This idea, this word, is a good lead-in to today?s Gospel selection from St. Matthew. Our brief passage today follows on the heels of the sermon on the mount, Jesus? beatitudes: ?blessed are the poor, the sorrowful, the meek,? and so forth. Our Gospel today presents a commission from Jesus to his followers: ?you are the salt of the earth ? you are the light of the world.?
In the ancient world, salt was a precious commodity. It gave flavor and zest to food; it served as an important preservative; salt also made people thirst for something more. These meanings, these values attributed to salt were not lost on Jesus. He wanted his disciples to give flavor and zest to the world through his teaching; to preserve the truth as he proclaimed it to the world; to make the world thirst for more, more not only of what he had to say, but more of what he was and is.
In addition to being salt for the earth, Jesus called his followers to be the light of the world. The word ?light? is used hundreds of times in the scripture. God?s first words, his first action: ?Let there be light.? In St. John?s Gospel, Jesus says of himself and his mission ?I am the light of the world.? And so he is, but curiously, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus transfers his light to those who follow him: ?You are the light of the world.? There is the most integral connection between who he is and what he does and all of us who take his name, ?Christian.? Discipleship is not an abstraction. His Gospel is not a painting, it is not simply an impression of light and color and nature. To follow the Lord Jesus, to be salt and light for the world, is as real as it gets.
When he says, ?I have come that you may have life,? he is speaking to everyone: born and unborn, healthy and sick; rich and poor; innocent and guilty, young and old --- and he is asking us to be that kind salt and light for the world, the kind that brings life. When he says, ?I was a stranger and you welcomed me,? he was speaking for everyone, not only for those within our borders but for those who cross them, no matter how they got here --- he is asking us to be that kind of salt and light for the world, the kind that welcomes people home. When he says, ?Whatever you do to the least of my sisters and brothers, you do to me,? he is speaking with everyone, whatever color or nationality or state in life, God in our midst, the word made flesh and dwelling among us. He is asking us to be that kind of salt and light for the world.
Why? Because that is who HE is. Because that is what HE does. And he invites us to follow him.
Earlier I characterized the genius of impressionist art as bringing light to color, as presenting light so that it changes the way one looks at the world. Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus calls us to be that same light. What a different view of the world that light gives! Let the light shine!
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