A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden [Matthew 5:14] is an image sometimes applied to the story which we Americans often like to tell about ourselves. Ronald Reagan quoted it in the 1980s. John F. Kennedy quoted it to the Massachusetts General Court in 1961 [photo], explicitly referencing its first application to America – John Winthrop’s famous sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, delivered in 1630 to the Massachusetts colonists still on board their ship.
Whatever that expression has since come to mean in modern American politics, for Winthrop its meaning was quite clear – and challenging. He said:
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 … For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.
Thanks to Winthrop and his New England Puritans, Jesus’ famous challenge to his disciples to be the light of the world and a city that cannot be hidden became a familiar and powerful American image of the sort of society to aspire to be, one which over time has attracted immigrants from all over the world.
Originally, of course, the image referred to the Church, called to continue Christ’s life and mission by being light for a dangerously dark world. But, in the dark of night a city might easily be hidden by the surrounding darkness, unless illuminated by the lights lit by its citizens’ shared efforts. It takes conscious commitment and cooperation, without which there is only darkness. Autonomy and competition cannot build a city, much less illuminate it. Making a fire, lighting a lamp, illuminating a city, none of that happens automatically. The illumination Jesus challenges us to bring about requires our commitment to the kingdom of God, the coming of which we pray for every day in the Lord’s Prayer – a world transformed by the saving power of Christ its King, where the forces of evil are in retreat, divisions are undone, and (as Winthrop said) we delight in each other, supporting one another in the ways he mentioned, without fear of the dark.
Jesus challenges us to side with the light and reject the dark. But that is not so easy as it sounds. For darkness still very much dominates the world.
Yet, in spite of all that is so terribly wrong in our world, Jesus invites us to follow him into his kingdom, with confidence in his light’s power. So, while people still die, the resurrection of Christ assures us that death no longer has the final word. And, although people in both private and public life still hate, exploit, insult, and abuse their power, yet God’s kingdom of justice, reconciliation, and peace has already begun to take root in our world – through our life together.
In the dark, it seems only natural to hate, exploit, insult, and oppose those who appear different from us in some way, and to be attracted to those who succeed in the world by doing such things, those the world admires and those the powerful praise as “winners.” It takes the fire of love to light the lamp of reconciliation and to illuminate a city with God’s justice and peace. On our own, we would long ago have been left in the dark; but Jesus himself has provided us with the fire 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. The Church is not on some private planet all by itself, but very much a part of this time, this place, this society. Hence, Governor Winthrop’s detailed instructions to his fellow settlers on what being an authentic human community must entail – instructions every bit as timely today as they were then.
There is a darker approach to life in the world, one which seems increasingly to set society’s tone today, a transactional approach which sees everything in life in terms of competition – in which everything becomes a kind of zero-sum game of winners and losers. But, just as the light of any one individual candle will continue to burn with its full brightness, no matter how many more may be lit from it from it, we need not worry that the light will be lost if we share with others. Jesus does not want us to huddle, frightened and fretful, around a weakly lit fire, but to be a bright, well-lit city that not only can but wants to be seen for miles around – a new kind of community that already in the 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 9, 2020.