This little light of mine I’m gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations.
In the mid-1950s, an African American woman boarded a segregated bus in the South after a long day’s work as a seamstress. As the bus continued its route, it began to fill with white passengers. Eventually, the bus was full, and the driver noticed that several white passengers were standing in the aisle. So, the bus driver stopped the bus and asked the woman and three other Black passengers to give up their seats. While the other three passengers complied, the woman refused. She was tired and fed up with being treated as a second-class citizen. As a result, she was arrested, her and her husband lost their jobs, and she received death threats for years to come. But her defiance sparked a light that led to a raging fire: it inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which, in turn, launched nationwide efforts that eventually ended racial segregation of public facilities in this country. The bravery of this woman—the late Rosa Parks—literally sparked the civil rights movement in the United States, bringing about long overdue justice to the African American community.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, a feast that is all about Jesus’ identity as messiah and his mission. In the familiar Gospel scene, Jesus is given a divine affirmation: upon being baptized in the Jordan by John, Jesus sees the heavens torn open, the Spirit descends, and a voice cries from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” In this moment, Jesus is anointed for his ministry and has been given a divine commission to begin his work.
What work was Jesus commissioned to do? Today’s first and second readings illuminate this for us. In Isaiah, we learn that Jesus’ role was like that of some Old Testament prophets called “servants of God,” in which the role of the “servant” was basically two-fold: 1.) to bring forth justice and, 2.) to be a light to the nations. Isaiah says such a prophet will be effective in his mission, not by “crying out,” “shouting,” or “making his voice heard in the street,” but rather, by his gentleness and understanding.
Then, in the second reading from Acts, we learn another critical aspect of Jesus’ mission: that it was for everyone. Here we find Peter in the house of Cornelius, a newly converted Roman Centurion. This was a scandalous act for a Jew since Cornelius was a Gentile and, for Jews like Peter, considered unclean. But Peter recently had a change of heart, and he tells everyone gathered that “God shows no partiality.” Jesus’ mission was for Gentiles and Jews alike. The inclusiveness of Jesus’ ministry is highlighted still more when Peter says Jesus healed “all those oppressed by the devil,” people who, during that time, were considered the most unclean of the unclean. But Jesus is not afraid or deterred by what other people think: he goes out to these people on the fringes of society, touches them, and heals them. Thus, we learn from these two readings that Jesus is called to bring justice, to be a light to the nations, and he is called to do this for everyone.
This feast also teaches us who we are to be for others. We, too, have been “called, “grasped by the hand,” and “formed” to bring justice and be a light to the nations, as Isaiah proclaimed. And so, we return to a woman who, I believe, emulated what it means to live out Jesus’ mission: Rosa Parks. While she did not intend to get arrested that day in 1955, I do believe Rosa was called and formed to be a servant of God, a light to the nations. In her 1995 book, Rosa spoke about how religion shaped her life and how, when the bus driver ordered her to move to the rear, she remembered the songs of freedom her mother sang to her and the bible lessons that taught her how people should stand up for their rights, just as the children of Israel stood up to Pharaoh. She demonstrated tremendous courage, and that one act was the catalyst that would bring forth “justice to the nations.” Like the servant in the first reading, Rosa did not bring about justice by crying out or shouting in the streets—she did it by making one seemingly small, but very courageous, decision.
Bringing about justice and being a light to others does not require grand gestures. We, too, can follow Rosa’s and Jesus’ example of being a light by the choices we make in our everyday lives, choices that may require a lot of courage. How, for example, might you respond when a friend, co-worker, or family member says something that is racist, homophobic, or sexist? Or when you see someone being sexually harassed at work or treated unjustly? What will you do when you see friends violently denigrating or attacking others on social media because of a different viewpoint? Do you have the courage, like Rosa, to speak up and to do so without lashing out?
We can also be a light and bring about justice by going out to everyone as Jesus modeled in the second reading. In our world today, we do not have to go far to find people who are suffering and need light in their lives. So many are lonely, isolated, going through illnesses like cancer or COVID. So many do not have enough food to eat, or do not have jobs, or work two jobs and still cannot support their families. And then there are the myriads who live in the darkness of exclusion from their communities, their families, or even their churches: those who are gay, teens who are bullied, the elderly, people coming out of prison trying to find work, and those fleeing war and violence from other countries. And many, many more.
How can you be a light to these people? Reach out as Jesus did. Volunteer. Advocate. Take time to learn about and get to know people outside of your own inner circle—people of different backgrounds, skin colors, religious beliefs, and countries of origin. Donate money to worthy causes. Write a letter to your local government to stand up for someone else. There is no end to the simple ways you can be a light to our world.
The light of one individual may be small, but it has the potential of growing exponentially when it spreads to others. Rosa Park’s light spread to an entire nation. Jesus’ light spread to the whole world. Let us be a light to the nations by the choices we make each day. We never know the impact it may have.
[Sung] This little light of mine I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
Rachelle Kramer is passionate about young adult ministry and development in higher education, teaching and mentoring pastoral leaders, and cultivating communities of faith rooted in a mature spirituality and commitment to the common good. Rachelle holds a D.Min. from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois where her research focused on fostering the holistic development of college students at Catholic Universities. She has master’s degrees in theology (St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota) and music (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and twenty years of experience leading liturgy and music programs in university and parish settings.
Rachelle has published and presented nationally on topics relating to liturgy, music, youth, and young adults. She has served as the music and liturgy director for several national conferences and programs, including Catholics on Call, the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, the Religious Formation Conference Congress, and Youth in Theology and Ministry. She is also the former chair of the Standing Committee for Youth for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians where she served on the council for seven years.
Rachelle is currently editor and content creator of the Prayer Corner for Wisdom’s Dwelling (wisdomsdwelling.com), a new online space for Catholic women, women seeking faith, and women who seek.
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