Sunday the 3rd Week in Ordinary Time
Anyone who walks into a church on Sunday can expect an experience unlike anything else in the modern world. Inside are the local representatives of the people of God, the modern partners in a dialogue with God going back ultimately to the call of Abraham, nineteen centuries before Christ. In direct continuity with the descendants of Abraham, we are a people who preserve and transmit our sacred texts and traditions from one generation to the next, and proclaim them in our assemblies. In the process, we become a community of interpretation, in which voices from various centuries are allowed to be heard and to have an impact on our life.
In the first reading, we heard the prophet Isaiah, who spoke in Jerusalem eight centuries before Christ. He said that “First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali” by allowing the people to be deported to Assyria, “but in the end…the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” For the people of the time, this meant that even in the darkness of deportation, a light has shone, for in days to come the Lord will confer glory on this obscure part of the promised land. The people of that generation died. But they preserved the words of the prophet Isaiah and transmitted them to their descendants because they were understood to be not only the words of Isaiah but the words of God.
And God continued to speak to his people whenever this text from Isaiah, which was quoted by St Matthew, was proclaimed in the liturgy. The community which preserved and transmitted the text continued to interpret it. In the sixth century after Christ, St Romanos the Melodist understood “Galilee of the Gentiles” to mean every nation that was in Christ, and that Christ came to dispel the darkness of every person of every nation. In a hymn for the Byzantine liturgy, he wrote: “In Galilee of the Gentiles, in the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, Christ, the sun of righteousness, sends forth rays of light to the world…As light for those in darkness, he calls out: ‘Overcome by feelings of pity, I, the merciful, have come to my creature, holding out my hands that I may embrace you. Do not feel shame before me’ for Christ appeared as the light” that shines in the darkness.
Just what this personal darkness means is explained by a 16th-century Carthusian monk, John Justus Landsberg. In a commentary on Matthew, he says that darkness is “whatever is present in our intellect, in our will, or in our memory that is not God, or which does not have its source in God; that is to say, whatever in us is not for God’s sake, is a barrier between God and the soul – it is darkness”.
For us who hear these voices from various centuries, there is a message about our personal relationship with God. Just as God speaks to his people in every generation whenever they gather for worship, so also he
speaks to each member of the assembly. Everyone hears the same words, but they have a somewhat different meaning for each person. No one can say “I belong to Paul, or I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Isaiah, or I belong to Romanos”, because the one God uses each one of these human instruments to get the Good News across to every member of his people.
The people of Isaiah’s time walked in the darkness of deportation, as we may go through any kind of suffering. But a light has shone on us, for the Lord is our light and our salvation, and he shows that every suffering is for a time only, whereas the light of his presence is eternal.
For St Matthew’s community, the darkness was the shadow of death. But Christ came as God from God and Light from Light, and by rising from the dead, he showed that the Light of God is stronger than human death. For those who feel that this means nothing to them personally, Christ speaks in the hymn by St Romanos, “I, the merciful, hold out my hands that I may embrace you. Do not feel shame before me”.
Christ knows our interior darkness better than we do and asks only that we see it in his light, the light of eternity. Whatever within us that is not of God is not eternal; it is darkness and belongs to the life that will end in death. But whatever within us that is related to God is light, for God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. The purpose of our momentary darkness is to let the eyes of our faith grow accustomed to the light of eternity by keeping them fixed on Christ our Light.
As he holds out his hands to us, his Body and Blood, in holy communion, let us ask him to strengthen the light within us, that we may see where to follow him in this life. And when the shadow of death has passed over us, may our eyes see in the light of God the human face of Christ, and recognize that he is not a stranger, but our eternal friend.
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