A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden [Matthew 5:14]. How many times have we Americans heard that phrase - usually in the more traditional translation as “a city upon a hill” - applied to our own American experience? President Ronald Reagan (whose 100th birthday is today) used it in 1984 when accepting his party’s nomination for President and again in 1989 in his farewell address as President. Prior to that, President-elect John F. Kennedy quoted it in his address to the Massachusetts legislature in 1961, explicitly citing Puritan Governor John Winthrop’s famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” delivered to the Massachusetts Bay colonists while still on board their ship in 1630. According to Winthrop:
We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, patience, gentleness, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace [cf. Ephesians 4:3]. … For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.
Thanks to Governor Winthrop and his fellow Massachusetts Puritans, Jesus’ challenge to his disciples to be the light of the world and a city set on a mountain that cannot be hidden has been a familiar and particularly powerful one for Americans. In its original context, of course, it referred not to America but to the Church, called by Christ to continue his life and mission by being light for an otherwise dangerously dark world.
In the dark of night, a city set on a mountain might itself be enveloped in overwhelming darkness, ominously hidden from view, unless its buildings and streets are illuminated by the lights lit – that is, the good deeds done – by its residents.
None of this happens automatically, of course. It’s not like touching a switch. Jesus and his hearers appreciated light – and the effort involved in making a city bright – because they knew natural darkness all too well, experiencing it every night, more frighteningly than we in our electric world can even imagine.
Making a fire, lighting a lamp, illuminating a city – in a non-electric world none of that happens automatically. It takes conscious effort, and without effort there is only darkness. The illumination Jesus was talking about requires commitment to the kingdom of God, the coming of which we pray for every day in the Lord’s Prayer – a state of affairs in which God is in charge, a world where God rules, a world transformed by the saving presence and power of Christ, where the forces of evil are in retreat, divisions are undone, and we are not afraid of the dark.
Jesus’ life, his death, and (above all) his resurrection have revealed the coming of that kingdom. God really is in charge, despite all appearances to the contrary, despite the obvious and persistent presence and power in our world of darkness, death, evil, and sin. We, however, have to side with the light and reject the dark, which is not so easy as it sounds.
For darkness is still powerfully present in our world. People still die, for example, but the resurrection of Christ assures us that death no longer has the final word. People still hate, exploit, and abuse, but God’s kingdom of love, reconciliation, and peace has already begun – here and now – in us. And the risen Lord keeps calling us to live the bright new life of his kingdom. In spite of all that is so terribly wrong in our world, Jesus invites us to follow him into his kingdom, confident that his light will be enough for us all.
It is, after all, only natural to hate, exploit, and mistreat. It takes the fire of love to light the lamp of reconciliation and illuminate a city with God’s peace. It takes more than one little light bulb or flickering candle. On our own, we would long ago have been left in the dark; but Jesus himself has provided us with the fire of his Holy Spirit to light up his city, freeing us to share that light with one another.
Of course, even a city set on a mountain has to draw its water from the ground below. We’re not on some private planet all by ourselves, but very much a part of this world – in this time, in this place, in this society. (Hence, Governor Winthrop’s detailed instructions to his fellow colonists on what being an authentic political community should entail!) Jesus’ words challenge us to recognize all that his Gospel has to say to our society here and now – and, recognizing that, to do what light is supposed to do and actually make a difference.
Just as the light of any one individual candle will continue to burn with its full brightness, no matter how many more candles may be lit from it, we need not worry that the light will be lost if we share it with outers. We need not fear that our city’s light will grow dim as it penetrates the darkness outside. Jesus encourages us to see ourselves not as some frightened, fretful minority, huddled around a weakly lit fire, but as a bright, well-lit city on a mountain that not only can, but wants, to be seen for miles and miles around – a new kind of community that already, here and now, has begun to live the new life of God’s kingdom, a city that not only cannot be hidden but that can, quite literally, light up the world.
Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 6, 2011