Sunday, February 05, 2017

The Church's Vocation: Light

The Cathedral in Segovia, Spain

By Óscar Ibáñez Fernández (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

(5th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on February 4, 2017 at St. Francis de Sales Church in North Kingstown, R.I. and February 5, 2017 at St. Francis de Sales Church and St. Peter's Church in Warwick, R.I.  See Isaiah 58:7-10 and Matthew 5:13-16)

Our readings for this weekend are focused in a particular way on vocation.  Often the first thing we think about when we hear the word “vocation” is the priesthood.  Frequently we ask our Lord for an increase in vocations to the priesthood.  As rector of our college seminary, I would certainly encourage us all to ask God for more priestly vocations.  But our readings for this weekend are much broader than just the vocation to the priesthood.  The readings for this Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time highlight the universal call to holiness.

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word, vocare, literally, to call.  God is calling all of us: those who are single and those who are married; He is calling priests and also religious.  Every single one of us are called to be holy, sacred, separate from the world, but for the sake of the world.  That is what Christ is calling us to in the Gospel this weekend.  He proclaims:

“You are the salt of the earth…” (Matthew 5:13).  Salt preserves, it sustains, it gives vitality to that which it seasons.  We are called to be holy so that we might preserve and give vitality to the world around us, seasoning it for the spiritual life that God wishes to bestow upon it.  “You are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14),” Jesus announces.  Light illumines the way; it makes it possible for others to find and discover God in their lives.  We are called to holiness, to be separate from the world, for the sake of preserving and sustaining the culture around us and to help souls find Jesus Christ.

This call, however, is not one that originates with the calling of the first disciples of Christ (what we listened to only two weeks ago in Sunday’s Gospel).  The call to holiness and to be God’s light in this world goes back to the Old Testament, and begins with the calling of Abraham.  God called Abraham in a deeply personal way to follow Him and to obey His word.  He then calls Jacob, whom he names Israel, His chosen one, to whom He makes promises and sustains in the land.  God then calls an entire people, Israel, that He forms as a nation and rescues from slavery in Egypt.  Through Moses He calls them to be holy: “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy (Leviticus 11:45).”

Certainly, God did not call Israel because they were better or larger than the nations around them; Assyria and Babylonia were far greater than Israel.  God did not call Israel because they were more advanced than the nations and cultures around them; Egypt was much more advanced than Israel.   These were a nomadic people, roaming through the desert and living in tents.  No, God called them because He loved them, and the purpose for their calling is expressed beautifully in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.  To the people returning from exile, who perhaps considered that they had been forgotten by God, Isaiah announces that it  is not the Lord’s desire to merely sustain them and restore them as a people once again.  No, He will make them His instrument and a servant for the salvation of all:

It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
—Isaiah 49:6

God called them to be holy so that He could bring the message of salvation to all peoples.  It is through Israel that the Messiah was to be born, the Son of God.  Jesus, the Christ, is born in Bethlehem and He preaches the Good News throughout the land of Israel.  He gives His life on the cross for the salvation of the world, and is buried outside the walls of Jerusalem.  On the third day, He rises from the dead, and sends His apostles out to the ends of the earth to proclaim the message of mercy, forgiveness and new life.  God’s plan worked!  Israel had become that light to the nations, responding to the vocation to which they were called. 

But in our first reading this weekend, the light that is Israel has grown dim . . .

There is every indication in that first reading today that Israel has not been faithful to her vocation to be holy; that she has not cared for those in need, or lived in a way separate from the other nations around her.  Isaiah the prophet challenges Israel to be that holy nation once again, so that they might experience anew the power of God.  He exhorts them to feed the hungry in their midst, and to clothe those who are naked and in need (Isaiah 58:7); to rid themselves of oppression, false accusation and malicious speech (Isaiah 58:9):

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn . . . then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.
Isaiah 58:8,10

In our Gospel this weekend, Christ is challenging the Church to that same fidelity and that same holiness to which we have been called.  He proclaims:

You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?  It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.  You are the light of the world.  A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
—Matthew 5:13-14
 Pope Francis, in his first encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei, writes about how the Church has faithfully brought the light of faith, and the truth about the human person, to the world.  He explains:

How many benefits has the gaze of Christian faith brought to the city of men for their common life! Thanks to faith we have come to understand the unique dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity.
—Lumen Fidei, #54

In the ancient world, particular men had a great dignity, but certainly not women.  Those who were free had personal dignity, but not those who were enslaved; they were regarded as mere property.  But once the message of the Gospel is proclaimed, the inestimable value of every human person is made eminently clear: we are worth the value of God’s only begotten Son.  St. Paul will announce boldly that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  The laws in our nation that govern how we live and how we relate to one another are founded on this vision of human dignity.  How much our culture takes for granted this Gospel truth!

But Pope Francis goes on to explain how God has been systematically removed from our cities and from the public square.  The effects are obvious.  It is not the case today that all persons have equal value and equal dignity in our cities.  The lives of the unborn share no such rights.  They are not protected by our laws and are not valued by society.  We have allowed a culture that has forgotten God to define human dignity, and the unborn are not included in the definition.  We have allowed a society that has forgotten God to redefine marriage and the family, no longer as a covenant of love between one man and one woman.  St. John Paul II cautioned, in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, that man can certainly build a world without God, but that world risks destroying itself.  We are witnessing that destruction—in small ways, and in ways perhaps not so small—all around us.
What is to be our response?  Christ is calling us to be holy, separate from the world, for the sake of the world.  He is calling us to bring His light back into the public square.  Pope Francis, in Lumen Fidei, cites the Letter to the Hebrews, where the biblical author recalls the great fidelity of Abraham, Sarah and the patriarchs.  Hebrews announces, “God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16).  But then Pope Francis turns that scenario around, asking:

Could it be the case, instead, that we are the ones who are ashamed to call God our God? That we are the ones who fail to confess him as such in our public life, who fail to propose the grandeur of the life in common which he makes possible? Faith illumines life and society. If it possesses a creative light for each new moment of history, it is because it sets every event in relationship to the origin and destiny of all things in the Father.
—Lumen Fidei, #55

In a word, the world we live in needs God!  We are the ones Christ is calling to bring the light of hope, and the message of faith, to a world that desperately needs to experience the love of God.  Will we answer that call?  I would like to conclude with a story that illustrates well our Gospel for this weekend.

Many years ago, a small church was built on one of the highest mountains in Switzerland.  It was quite beautiful and had been constructed with great care by the people of the nearby village.  But for all the details that were accounted for in that church, there was not a single light.  The mountain was too far from the nearest power station, and the cost of electricity would have been far too much.  Yet every Sunday evening, the people who lived on the mountain opposite that church would witness the most amazing thing.  The church bell would ring and people would gradually make their way up the hill.  As soon as they had all entered the church, it would suddenly become filled with light.  The villagers brought lanterns with them as they walked, and once they arrived they would place them on pegs set into the walls.  Having lit every lantern, the church would quickly fill with light.

After the Mass, the villagers would take their lanterns home, and it was then that the people who watched from a distance would see a flood of light coming out of the church, spreading into the night in every direction across the mountainside.

This is the Church that Christ is calling us to be in our Gospel for this weekend.  We are called to gather around this altar and receive Jesus Christ, the Light of the World; we are called to hear the message of the Gospel and let our hearts be set on fire with that love that conquers all things.  Ultimately, though, we are called to leave this place and spread that light and that love everywhere.  May we listen well to the call of Jesus Christ in our Gospel this weekend:

You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world.  A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.

—Matthew 5:13-14