Thursday, January 23, 2014

Poised Between Light and Darkness

Third Ordinary Sunday Year A

Recent events have had a shattering effect. Darkness looms all around. Rising prices, escalating religious tension, increased hostility and bigotry, ascending crime rate, rampant corruption - collectively paint an ominous future. It’s hard not to fall into the trap of cynicism. And so many indeed have fallen into the mire of despondency and hopelessness, wondering whether the only option would be to bail out of this country before it’s too late. I guess our present situation makes it easy to resonate and identify with that group of people Isaiah refers to in the first reading, a passage which St Matthew the Evangelist reiterates in the gospel, “the people that walked in darkness … those who live in the land of deep shadow.” Though darkness and shadow seem all pervasive, it is that same darkness that makes us open to welcome the soothing rays of light. This unsettling truth emerges – real hope is often possible when it has passed through the crucible of pain and disappointment.

Light and darkness, harvest and famine as naturally occurring phenomena have readily lent themselves to the scriptural authors as symbols of goodness and evil, life and death, salvation and perdition. When Isaiah proclaimed the oracle that comprises today’s first reading, he perceived as darkness and gloom the fact that the northern kingdom was tottering under the blows of foreign oppression. For those who regarded this political crisis in the north as the death knell for the southern kingdom, Isaiah held out the hope of a new harvest, the hope of a light in the darkness, i.e., the hope for the salvation that the Lord alone could effect for his faithful ones. Just as he attributed the dark shadows of defeat of the northern tribes to God’s just chastisement of an unfaithful people, so too, Isaiah promised that spiritual and ethical fidelity would be blessed with the light of victory and political stability.

Read in the context of the Christmas midnight mass and today’s first reading, the Isaian prophecy forms an apt description of what the birth of Jesus and his public ministry meant for the world living in darkness. Christ is the light who shines in the darkness of human need and suffering, Jesus’ advent is the saving dawn, the penetrating ray of justice and truth. We need the light of Christ shining as a beacon of hope into our darkness and shadowy experiences.

In the second reading, we are confronted with the painful truth that darkness is not just a reality kept at bay outside the confines of our Church. The truth of the matter is that the dark has insidiously crept into the church and resides within its shadows. Personality cults, political affiliations, ideological positions threatened to break the unity of the Church of Corinth. Four competing groups had emerged with each claiming that its own leader was superior to other leaders and therefore that its version of the gospel was superior to that of the other groups. Paul, himself, had been dragged into this factious battle. Directly confronting each of these factional groups, and even his own party stalwarts, Paul reminded the Christians in Corinth of their basic unity in Christ. That unity, challenged Paul, was to supersede every human preference and was superior to every human wisdom, however attractive. With the light of Christ at her centre, the darkness of her members will never overcome the Church.

We continue to witness how the light of Christ can penetrate the darkness of humanity in the gospel today. It begins on a troubling note – a moment of darkness for Jesus - John the Baptist, his cousin and in some respects his mentor, has just been arrested by Herod for his defiant preaching in response to Herod's marriage. After hearing of the arrest of John, St Matthew tells us that Jesus withdrew to Galilee. Outwardly this may seem to be motivated by a feeling of personal defeat and fear. Such a reading may indicate the uncontested victory of darkness over the light, indeed over the very source of Light. But, Jesus’ withdrawal is not a flight from danger or a retreat into security. He withdraws to Galilee to prepare for a major comeback. It was like the dark sky right before the bright Morning Star appears. To defeat the darkness, he understands that he must enter into the very maelstrom of that darkness; he must be totally identified with the people characterised by Isaiah as the ones ‘who walked in darkness’ and ‘live in a deep shadow.’  The solution would have to come in an intrinsic way; God’s work of salvation has to be accomplished through the ministry of proclaiming a life-changing gospel. Jesus will reveal that the kingdom which he preaches is far more fundamentally interwoven in human existence with the power to transform that existence.

By referring to the beginning of his public ministry in the northern territory of Galilee, a place that had come under foreign domination and infiltration thus sullying the pure blood lines of the Jewish people, St Matthew desires to show how the light of Jesus’ ministry is meant to illuminate the religiously impoverished hinterland of humanity in need of salvation. Here, begins to proclaim the core of his preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.” Repentance does not just mean expressing sorrow for one’s wrongdoing. It is more than that. It is turning away from the past, away from sin, away from the darkness which we have been accustomed to live with, in order that we may turn to the light, to the kingdom of heaven, to Christ himself, the new dawn of creation and first light of salvation.

The irony thickens with the call of ordinary Galilean fishermen as his first disciples. Jesus does not venture into this great project alone; instead, he enlists disciples from all walks of life. It is not the righteous, the religiously qualified, the catechetically informed and educated, those insulated from the putrid darkness, who are called to embrace this mission of bringing light to the darkness of the world but those whose lives interspersed with light darkness. In fact, the choice will fall upon these fishermen, whose amphibious lifestyle, represent humanity poised between light and darkness, they could go either way. But then the light of Christ proves triumphant. The disciples immediately heed his call –they choose to follow the light and to leave the darkness behind. Therefore, these first disciples act as a kind of canvass in which is displayed that monumental battle between light and darkness, a battle which would foretell the coming of what is in store for the world.

If we had the power to save humanity, where, with whom and how would we begin? There is a valuable, albeit paradoxical, lesson to be learned in the divine plan. To preach the most eloquent news the world would ever know, God chose simple Galilean fishermen. He drew together into a community people who had lost sight of that good news and became instead enamoured of its various messengers. He taught the lessons of freedom through slavery’s chains and let his people discover light through the lessons of darkness.

And so here we are in the ordinariness of our daily existence, each moment poised between light and darkness – confronted with so many choices. We can choose to be positive or to be consumed by the negative, to live with hopeful optimism or cynical pessimism, to be children of the Light or of Darkness, to follow Christ or the world. It is a simple choice. It is a choice to be made by everyone, a choice that can change us and change our lives and change the world all around us. We can choose to be victims and be silent participants of a world that seems darkened by sin and death, drugs and violence, loneliness and despair, injustice and poverty, hostility and bigotry, hopelessness and cynicism, or we could choose to shine the light of Christ therein and allow that light to transform everything it touches. In the light of Christ, our vision is renewed, our strength rejuvenated, and our story changes - we come to realise that our story can be a story not of despair but one of hope, a journey from heartbreak to happiness, a journey from the dark into the light.

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