Our gospel this weekend tells the story of new beginnings: the start of Jesus’ public ministry, the calling of the first Apostles, Peter and Andrew, James and John. In many ways it is also a very personal story for me, but we’ll come back to that.
St. Matthew tells us that it all began “in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 4:13). Where on earth are Zubulun and Naphtali? Those are two names we almost never hear in our Sunday readings, yet this weekend we hear them mentioned several times, in the first reading from Isaiah the prophet and in the Gospel of St. Matthew.
Zebulun and Naphtali, to go back to the Old Testament, were two of the twelve tribes of Israel. Remember that the twelve tribes were named after the twelve sons of Jacob; when they established themselves in the Promised Land, Zebulun and Naphtali settled into the region of the north, near the Sea of Galilee.
The north of Palestine was a region rich in natural resources and abundant in opportunities; they enjoyed a tremendous fishing industry on the Sea of Galilee, as we hear in all the gospels. But because that region was so close to the bordering nations, it was also the most vulnerable and exposed. Time and again in the nation’s history the land of Zebulun and Naphtali had been invaded and devastated by the enemies of Israel.
In the 8th century B.C., the nation of Assyria had come in and wiped them out, carrying many of the people into exile, and worse, repopulating the land with their own. The unity of culture and faith of the tribes to the north had been broken and dissipated. It was for that reason that Isaiah the prophet and St. Matthew both referred to it as “Galilee of the Gentiles,” and “a land overshadowed by death” (Matthew 4:15-16). It was a place of brokenness; a place of sorrow; a place of darkness.
And it is precisely in that place where Jesus Christ, the Messiah, begins to restore the twelve tribes of Israel, to heal the nation and to renew the face of the earth! I would suggest this weekend that this gospel passage teaches us three vital and important things about God.
Firstly, God comes to us in the darkness. When we are broken, afraid, confused and filled with sorrow, when the world around us turns dark and we feel most powerless, God comes to us. He brings us the light that we could never manufacture on our own, the light who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.
Secondly, when He comes into our lives He immediately calls us out of darkness and into relationship with Himself, the Light. The first words He speaks in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali this weekend, the opening address in His public ministry, echoes the familiar command:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Christ calls us to leave behind everything that keeps us from drawing closer to God; to turn away from sin and from every form of selfishness and to embrace the gospel message of grace, forgiveness and new life in the kingdom of heaven. We are called to live lives of repentance and to be united to the Light that is Christ.
Finally, once the Light comes into our darkness, once He has called us out of darkness and into His own wonderful light (see Colossians 1:13), it is then that He sends us out as apostles of light to bring the good news of the gospel to those who remain in darkness.
As we hear in the Gospel of Matthew, He calls Peter and Andrew, James and John to follow Him and become “Fishers of Men.” They will bring His gospel from the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali to the far reaches of the world, giving their very lives for the message of hope, forgiveness, and new life in Christ. By all means it is a powerful story for us to reflect on this weekend.
But as I mentioned at the beginning of this homily, it is also a very personal story. For several years of my life I lived in darkness; not geographically in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, but spiritually in the dark because I was not practicing my faith in Jesus Christ. I was not putting God in the center of my life. Instead, I put myself in the center and did whatever I wanted to do. Because of that I was spiritually in darkness.
There were questions in my life that I did not have any answers for:
Why am I here?
Why did God make me and what am I supposed to do with my life?
At that time I was working in the dark…literally! I was working third shift at Stop & Shop, and one night a commercial came on the radio at about three o’clock in the morning (Truth be told, it was the hard rock station, because that is what we listened to at three o’clock in the morning on the graveyard shift. If you go to the supermarket near you at three o’clock in the morning, that’s what you’ll listen to, like it or not!).
The commercial went something like this:
Do you feel called to serve other people?
Do you have gifts for spreading the gospel message?
Maybe you are being called to the Catholic priesthood.
I remember standing there, listening to that commercial in the middle of the night, and thinking: “You’ve got to be kidding me. Do they have any idea who listens to this station at three o’clock in the morning? People like me! They would have a better chance getting me to become a Catholic priest!”
I had no idea that God was trying—right then—to do that very thing. It was only over the course of the next few years that I began to realize that Jesus Christ had come to me in the darkness and began to call me into the light with Him. He began to call me into a deeper and more intimate relationship with Him than I could have ever imagined.
Everything in my life began to change: my relationship with my parents, with friends, with people I worked with. Everything was different. I found myself not only at Sunday Mass, but even at daily Mass now, with my parents, strengthened in the word of God and in the sacraments of the Church.
And then He began to send me out to share that same message of hope and the same joy that I had found in Christ. He sent me into the seminary to prepare for a life of ministry, a life of service. He sent me to Rome to finish my studies and formation for the priesthood. He sent me to Our Lady of Mercy in East Greenwich to proclaim the gospel message of forgiveness, mercy and eternal life. And praised be Jesus Christ, in July of 2007 He sent me here to St. Mary’s in Cranston to announce that same message of hope. I am a Roman Catholic priest, and I love what God has called me to do and the life that I have been given by Him!
That is my story.
What I ask this weekend is: What is your story?
Where do you feel the darkness in your own life? Where are the places that you are broken, anxious or fearful and feel alone or in the dark?
God comes to us in the darkness, and calls us into a deeper, more intimate relationship with Himself. How is He calling you out of darkness and into His light?
And most importantly of all, how is He calling all of us, this week, to be sent out and to share that message of hope and the Light that is Jesus Christ with those who remain even now in the dark? How are we called to bring the Light of Christ to a world that desperately needs it?