Sunday, January 22, 2017

New Beginnings and The Light of Christ

Sunrise on the Sea of Galilee

(3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on January 21, 2017 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Central Falls, R.I. and Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Cumberland, R.I., and on January 22, 2017 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Central Falls, R.I. see Isaiah 8:23-9:3 and Matthew 4:12-23)

We are only a few short weeks into the New Year.  Perhaps you made some New Year’s resolutions earlier this month, and, like most people, maybe you have had the chance to break them!  No matter.  In the Christian life and in our spiritual relationship with Christ, there is always an opportunity to begin again.  

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.  And 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 God delivered His people from slavery and death in Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land, the tribes of 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 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.” That was not a term of endearment.  The region of Zebulun and Naphtali was referred to as “a land overshadowed by death” (Matthew 4:15-16) because it was a place of brokenness, a place of sorrow and 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.  

There is an important spiritual principal here.  God will often shine the light of Christ into our darkness just when we need it most, bringing us hope and new life.  It is not that God wants us to experience tragedy and difficult times, but perhaps it is only when we are most vulnerable that we are able to open our hearts to divine grace and recognize that we need the light of Christ.  God’s greatest work is often accomplished in our darkest hours.

There is a powerful story about St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Church.  St. John of the Cross, along with the beloved St. Teresa of Avila, felt called by God to reform the Carmelite Order.  The Carmelites, unlike the Franciscans or the Dominicans, are called to a strictly contemplative life.  They were founded to be a community of silent and communal prayer, but in the 16th century they had moved far away from that ideal.  Set aflame by the Spirit of God in prayer, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila were instrumental in bringing about a greatly needed reform.

Reform in the Church, however, does not come without a cost.  Those called to reform the Church from the inside are often confronted with tremendous opposition, and such was the case with St. John of the Cross.  In the winter of 1577, he was literally abducted and brought in handcuffs to a monastery in the City of Toledo.  John was placed in a prison cell where there was no heat, no light and little food.  Yet suddenly, there in the darkness, the most remarkable thing began to happen.  God began to shine the light of Jesus Christ into his soul.  

Biographer Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. writes, “In that cramped prison, stripped of all earthly comfort, he was touched with some rays of divine light.”  John was filled with love for God and even for those who had mistreated him.  He made friends with one of his captors and soon prevailed upon him for some writing paper and a pen.  There, in the darkness of that prison cell, St. John of the Cross began to compose some of the most eloquent and beautiful poetry found anywhere in the Spanish language.  He wrote about divine grace, forgiveness and the ineffable love God has for us in Jesus Christ.  Some of God’s greatest work can happen in our darkest hours.

Where is God speaking to us, in our lives, perhaps even in those places where the darkness seems to have settled in?  Where are we most in need of a new beginning and the light of Jesus Christ?  We remember, first and foremost, the words of Jesus in the Gospel this weekend.  The very first words he proclaims in His public ministry are: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17).  Before the light of Christ can illumine and inspire our souls we need to make a purposeful decision to turn away from sin.  If we have allowed any darkness into our lives, into our relationships, into our communities, then we ask for the grace to turn back once again to God.

But more than that, we ask that God would flood our souls with light in all those places that we experience challenges and the contradictions of life.  In any of those places where there is doubt or difficulty, we ask for the light of Jesus Christ to strengthen us and renew us once again.  May we discover what St. John of the Cross found in that small, dark place, and what St. Peter and St. Andrew, St. James and St. John, and all the great saints down through the ages have experienced:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone.

—Isaiah 9:2