Ever since I was a child I have always been fascinated and moved by the Olympic torch – the light which is lit several months before the opening of the Games at the site of the ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece. The light is then carried by torch-relay across the world to the site of the Games. Traditionally, it has been carried on foot by athletes. But it first traveled on a boat in 1948, across the English Channel, and then by airplane in 1952 to Helsinki. In 1976 the light was transformed to an electronic pulse and laser beam. And in 2000 divers carried it underwater near the Great Barrier Reef.
It’s a very powerful image. I used to imagine the responsibility of carrying this precious light. It must not go out. And every four years there is a new and exciting way of transmitting that light.
In our Gospel today from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says to his followers, “You are the light of the world…Let your light shine before others, that they may see….” It wasn’t Mount Olympus, but in a similar way, Jesus is commissioning those who would follow him to be bearers of the light, even to the ends of the earth. Jesus never promised that it would be easy: he spoke of times of great violence and persecution, when most people would prefer darkness to light. Yet, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
One of my favorite places in the world, where I experienced an overwhelming sense of God’s presence, is also one of the bleakest and most inhospitable. If you travel to the very westernmost part of Ireland in County Kerry, and if it’s a clear day, which isn’t that often, you can see eight miles out to sea, rising several hundred feet out of the sea, a craggy rock.
I took a boat out to this rock, and traveled as a pilgrim. The rock is called Skellig Michael. When George Bernard Shaw visited this rock he wrote, “An incredible, mad place. I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world.” What makes it holy is what happened 1600 years ago.
Almost 400 years after the growth and spread of the light of Christ throughout the Roman Empire, the unthinkable happened. Barbarians invaded the Western Empire. In 410 Rome was sacked: Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, destroyed city after city: as St. Augustine lay dying in 430, Vandals were at the gate of his city of Hippo. Soon the whole Roman Empire would fall and a Dark Age would settle over Europe. The Classical World, including Christianity, was overrun and as one writer put it, “only its bleached bones stood out against the Mediterranean sky.”
And yet, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” From the dark ruins of the Empire, Christian monks traveled west: first to France, to Marseille (John Cassian – Abbey of St. Victor), to Tours (St. Martin of Tours – Ligugé Abbey), and then when life became too dangerous, they struggled on in search of the most inaccessible fringes of Cornwall (St. Petroc – St. German), the Hebrides (Columba – Iona), and Ireland. And here they stayed, keeping the light of Christ burning on the very edge of a pagan world.
They came to Skellig Michael, and this monastery is still there, carved out of the inhospitable rock, pounded by the waves of the western Atlantic. These monks gave glory to God and kept the light burning. As the art historian Kenneth Clark put it, “It is hard to believe that for quite a long time – almost a hundred years – western Christianity survived by clinging on to places like Skellig Michael.”
What an extraordinary thing. What a risk: for God to entrust his precious light to a band of crazy old monks living on a bare rock eight miles out amidst the crashing waves of the Atlantic.
What an extraordinary thing: what a risk: for God to entrust his precious light to a young girl from Nazareth called Mary – to entrust his light to a motley crew of disciples – to entrust his light to you and to me.
“Consider your own call,” says St. Paul. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong….” (1 Cor. 1:26-27)
And God chose you and me. What an extraordinary thing. What a risk. We are the light of the world. We carry that light within us. Like the Olympic runner, we carry that precious light of Christ within us: at baptism we were made Christ’s and Christ dwells within us.
In Jesus’ day in Palestine, the house lamp was a saucer-like bowl filled with oil in which a wick floated loosely. When a householder went out, for safety’s sake, as well as to avoid the trouble of using the flint again, he would place the burning lamp under his bushel basket. But when he returned, he would put the lamp in its proper place on the lamp standard to give light to everyone in the house. And Jesus uses this image in his words in the Gospel: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand…In the same way, let your light shine before others….”
I find it very humbling to think back to those monks 1600 years ago, keeping the light of Christ burning, clinging to the edge of the world, so that we today can be worshiping in this monastic church. It challenges me to examine just how faithfully I tend and nurture the gift of the light of Christ entrusted to me.
Just like those athletes entrusted with the Olympic torch for their small section of the journey, each one of us is entrusted with the Gospel for these few years, within the whole history of the Christian church. Our faithfulness in this will have an effect on future generations to come. So how we live our lives, our commitment to worship, to private prayers, to mission, is not just about us and our relationship to God. We have a responsibility to be bearers of the light – a responsibility to those who are still to come. We have a torch to carry for a while, and then we pass it on.
As we think back to those monks of Skellig Michael, as we think back to the saints and martyrs who kept the light burning, ask yourself “How does my light shine before others?” How does my life now make a difference to others? Who now needs the light that I have been entrusted with?
How can the light that is in me point others to him who is the light of the world, our Savior Jesus Christ?
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