13 June
Mt 5:13-16

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

"A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden." If you go to Italy you see towns and cities built on hilltops and mountaintops. Throughout the world, in fact, this is the preferred location. How inconvenient for old people!  Was it for the view that people built in such awkward places? Yes and no: it was not to admire the landscape but to get a view of approaching enemies.  It would be hard to hide a city, so you make it fully alert instead: full of eyes, full of consciousness.

As you have guessed, this is not only about cities; it is about human beings. The valley is a symbol of sleep and unconsciousness, the hilltop is a symbol of wakefulness and watchfulness. Most religious sites are high places: Jerusalem, Mount Tabor, Mont St Michel, Croagh Patrick, Skellig Mhichíl.... The list could go on and on. And not only Christians have this instinct; most people do.  Hindus have said that Shiva lives on Mount Everest (or Sagarmatha, as the Nepalese call it)....

When you choose unconsciousness you descend into the valley of darkness. Sleep is a kind of valley. In sleep you lose your awareness of everything. But our world now finds this kind of sleep no longer enough.  It creates TV that enables you (if you spend too much time watching it) to turn even your waking hours into a kind of sleep.  It creates drugs that send you into even deeper sleep.  It creates a strange suicidal instinct in some of the young. Popular culture is addicted to sleep and unconsciousness. Everything becomes a flight and a kind of merging of the self that caricatures the religious merging of the self.  Drugs, alcohol and sex have all now taken on this significance.

Why all this flight? It is because consciousness is painful. To be on a hilltop in some sense – to have to be awake, to be exposed, to be vulnerable and to know it – all that is painful.  Or perhaps what makes it painful for me is that I am only partly conscious, fluctuating, it is said, between 5% and 10%.  That is enough to provide a glimpse of the 90% or 95% unconsciousness in me.  So I bury my head.  I blot out that 5 or 10% consciousness.  I am an ostrich.  The ostrich is said to bury its head (which, as it happens, looks about 5% of its body size) when it sees danger, thinking that it is hiding itself completely.  But that is not being fair to ostriches, who are every bit as intelligent as any other bird, and more so than we are at times.  Any creature – bird or human – that buries its head is helping its enemy.  Let me look at yesterday, or even this morning, and count all the times I took flight from direct experience into unconsciousness….

"You are the light of the world," Jesus said.  I don't feel like that, do you?  Much of the time I'd like to climb under a tub.  I can accept it when he says that he himself is the light of the world (John 8: 12), but when he tells me that I too am the light of the world I feel deeply puzzled.  It forces me to look again.  He can hardly have been stroking my ego, saying, "Ah, you're not as stupid as you look!"  He was referring to something that is lodged in me whether I want it or not, something that is there before I ever perform either badly or well, something that I can never quench: the light that St Paul described as 'the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.' "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, shining in the face of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:7).

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This page gives a very brief commentary by Donagh O’Shea on the gospel reading for each day of the month. 


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