Father Donald Senior, CP

Jan. 26: Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Dawning light in the darkness

Is 8:23—9:3; Ps 27:1, 4, 13-14; 1 Cor 1:10-13, 17; Mt 4:12-23

Years ago when I was a seminarian here in Chicago, I had an experience that I will never forget. It is tied into the powerful passage from the Prophet Isaiah found both in the first reading for this Sunday and in the Gospel selection from Matthew.

Passionist Father Edmund Drake served as chaplain at the notorious Dunning Hospital, at that time a massive facility for the mentally ill. At Christmas, Father Ed invited our seminarian choir to come to Dunning to sing at the Christmas Mass. 

After Mass, an orderly took us around to sing for patients who could not make it to the service. At one point, he ushered us into a room that was barely lit and when he turned on the lights I was startled to see it was filled with patients — most of them in hospital smocks — sitting on benches. There was a small television set mounted on a corner wall but most of the patients were not looking. They seemed to stare into space.

I learned that most of them had suffered strokes or dementia and were kept like this most of the day. We sang for them but the Christmas music seemed not to register.

I will never forget the sadness of that scene. For me the mood was captured in the words of Isaiah for today. The prophet speaks of Zebulun and Naphtali, two early tribes of Israel that were crushed by the eight-century Assyrian invasion of the northern region of Israel and their survivors taken into exile, never to return. Isaiah evokes that sad memory to speak of God’s liberating power that will reverse that terrible fate: “Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone.”

The evangelist Matthew cites this same quotation from Isaiah to highlight the moment when Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Messiah and savior of the world, steps into the arena of his public mission. When Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been arrested, he takes it as a signal for his own courageous mission to begin. 

Jesus moves from his home village of Nazareth to Capernaum, a fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the arena where most of his teaching and healings will take place. By citing the text from Isaiah, Matthew underscores the significance of this moment in history. Through Jesus’ mission those “who sit in darkness have seen a great light”; for a people “dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, light has dawned.” 

Matthew, who frequently adds quotations from Scripture to the story of Jesus, makes a slight change in the wording to fit the moment he describes. The original quotation from Isaiah speaks of a light that “has shone” on the people dwelling in gloom. Matthew changes the verb to say, “light is dawning.” The darkness that grips the people is about to be dispelled by the luminous beauty of Jesus and his mission of compassion and reconciliation.

The symbolism of darkness and light occur throughout the Bible to describe the impact of God’s presence. Our Catholic liturgy seizes on this powerful imagery too. We recall that the Easter Vigil begins in darkness and then gives way to the light of the Easter candle and the joy of resurrection.

Potent, too, is the symbol of darkness and gloom to describe some of our own experiences. There are dark days of mourning when we lose someone we love. Troubles that engulf us can push us into the darkness. 

The same is true on a communal level, like now, with so many threats of violence, with so much discourse of hatred and revenge, with the terrible impact of natural disasters. More than ever we need the promise of light and beauty that our faith in a God of love and mercy brings us. 

The disciples whom Jesus calls at the shore of the sea are to bring that same light to the world.


  • scripture